The winner will face Toulouse, who logically qualified for the final thanks to a show of strength against Racing 92 (41-14) on Friday at the Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian, Spain.
The Rochelais had celebrated last year the first European Cup in their history. A little too much, perhaps. Physically and mentally imprinted, they had seen their league run come to an end two weeks later in a play-off in Toulouse (33-28).
Their second continental star, won last month after an incredible turnaround against Leinster (27-26), in Dublin, was again well watered. Or even more.
But Ronan O'Gara's men, directly qualified in the last four of the Top 14, this time had three weeks to recover and focus on the double European Cup-championship, only achieved three times so far (Toulouse in 1996 and 2021, Toulon in 2014).
"Maybe we weren't so hungry after that first title for the club. We also benefited a lot," said international centre Jonathan Danty. "Unfortunately, we didn't qualify directly for the semi-finals and we had to play again very quickly afterwards. All this led to a collective failure."
"That's why after the final against Leinster in Dublin, we thought we missed out last year, but we were in a good position this year to achieve something that would be huge," he added. "These are things that happen very rarely in a career so when you have the opportunity, you have to try to go to the end."
Top 14: the semi-finals © Vincent LEFAI, Sophie RAMIS / AFP
"No one is waiting for us"
Stade Rochelais, second behind Toulouse in the regular phase of the championship despite some unusual hitches at home (three defeats), is legitimately in a position of strength in San Sebastian.
Especially since his opponent, sixth and last qualified, could almost be content to be there after going through all the emotions this season.
"We've had highs, we've had lows. We had very weak moments, we had moments when we were pretty good, "summarizes the young hooker Gironde Maxime Lamothe. "It's true that in matches like this, nobody expects us and I feel like this is the place that suits us best."
When its voluble manager Christophe Urios was sacked in November, UBB was thinking more about staying in the top flight than a third consecutive semi-final.
The happiness of Bordeaux-Bègles after qualifying for the semis of the Top 14 at the expense of Lyon at the Stade Gerland, June 4, 2023 © OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP/Archives
But former assistants Frédéric Charrier and Julien Laïrle, who will be reunited with their mentor at Clermont next season, have gradually managed to straighten things out.
"We have been under pressure for months and reaching qualification allowed us to free ourselves," said Charrier. "The win in Lyon (32-25 last weekend in the play-off) should give us even more confidence."
The Girondins have "no inferiority complex" to feed against their "neighbor" from La Rochelle, says Maxime Lucu despite their three defeats in a row in spring 2022 or the correction received last March (36-6) in front of their supporters at Matmut Atlantique.
"This is not a team that scares us every time we play it," insists the international scrum-half. "If we look at them, we all know the score: it will be 40 points."
© 2023 AFP