Ronan O'Gara: La Rochelle head coach and a man of Cork. Steve Haag Sports/INPHO

La Rochelle seek to absorb Rebel county then travel to Dublin as continuity Cork

Ronan O’Gara knows European champions need an injection of Corkness to give them the edge against Leinster.

WE WROTE RECENTLY that Ireland never had a chance against England in this year’s Six Nations, such were the depths of England’s reservoirs of spite. 

A two-week build up meant we had reached the tipping point in the number of people who believed England were utterly and hopelessly shit. Having listened to that, England couldn’t do anything but win. You can’t really blame Ireland for not wanting it enough: it would be like criticising the luckless camper in the woods for not being fast enough to outrun the bear. 

This is the problem now facing Ronan O’Gara. He has hewn La Rochelle into the biggest killers in European club rugby, and having stomped on Leinster’s dreams for three straight years, last year felt like the crescendo. Beating Leinster in a final on their home turf in a competition more hostile to away teams than any other meant there were surely no more worlds left to conquer. 

And yet here O’Gara must go again, as it’s Leinster against La Rochelle in Dublin, albeit this time in a quarter-final. 

Rugby takes elementals like hurt and grievance and gives them dignity by decorating them with tactical jargon, but it’s really on this stuff that rugby games turn. So how does O’Gara guard against the fact that Leinster are brimming with them? 

His answer: Go to Cork. 

cork-city-cork-ireland-06th-april-2020-a-view-of-the-brian-boru-bridge-and-the-northside-of-the-city-as-a-waxing-gibbous-moon-desends-in-cork-city-ireland-credit-david-creedon-alamy-live-n Bad moon rising: The River Lee, Brian Boru Bridge and the northside of Cork city. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There are obvious logistical reasons behind the decision, given La Rochelle are travelling from South Africa, it’s no harm to get all of the travel out of the way at the start of the week.

But there is also a mental element to it all. We can be guilty of doing a Jose Mourinho on O’Gara and portraying all of his decisions and comments as just the latest skirmish in his grand psychological war, but it’s impossible to imagine La Rochelle beating Leinster three times on the bounce without O’Gara squatting on their brains throughout it all. (O’Gara must be bemused by the national talk of a housing crisis, given he has spent the last few years living rent-free in Dublin 4.) 

La Rochelle can now absorb the county around them and travel up to Dublin this weekend as a kind of continuity Cork; they can remain beneath the swipe and claw of Leinster’s damned frustration by appropriating the haughty insurgency that is unique to Cork.

So all La Rochelle must do to buttress their brilliant team, negate years of seething Leinster pain, and eliminate all prospect of complacency is to spend a few days soaking themselves in a Corkness served pure and undistilled. 

The notion of Corkness has been codified, quite brilliantly, by former Cork GAA county board chair, Tracey Kennedy. 

“That air of confidence just on the right side of arrogance”, is how she described it, “an unparalleled pride and our insatiable desire for Cork to be the best at absolutely everything.” 

It is one of those things whose existence is evident in the mere act of defining it. Only the people of Cork would define something called Corkness. (With all due regard to my own home county, we’ll be a while waiting for the dictionary definition of Longfordness.) 

You can argue about it’s truth all you want, but if you’re a rugby coach figuring out a means of convincing the best team in Europe to go back to the well once again, then Corkness is the secret sauce.

It is that sense of an adamantine self-confidence that is always being affronted from without; it is a code of living in which you can be both angry and baffled that you have to keep on proving to the world that you are, at the end of the day, just better. 

And it should have its perfect foil in Leinster, who are the establishment’s vision of the establishment. 

Corkness can be said to one of the main engines of Irish sport over the years. Sonia O’Sullivan has written of being influenced by Marcus O’Sullivan’s blatant wearing of his Corkness, and O’Gara and others brought it first to Munster and then to Ireland. 

eamonn-coghlan-and-marcus-osullivan Marcus O'Sullivan leading Eamonn Coghlan. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The origin story of the 2009 Grand Slam was Rob Kearney’s standing up to O’Gara at Carton House, as if a Munsterification of the national team was its last necessary step to glory. 

And an essential part of what drove Roy Keane was his belief that national team selections at all levels were biased toward those based and hailing from Dublin, which dated back to his own rejection for national U15 trials by the FAI. 

It is at this point we need to apologise to the Cork readers who have been enjoying this column so far – this phenomenon is not entirely unique to Cork. 

Their sporting edge is shared by many of the other second cities across Europe. Only 10 of the 28 winners of the Champions Cup are based in capital cities (we’re including Ulster here) and it’s a similar story in football, where capital cities account for 24 of the 68 winners of the Uefa Champions League. (Real Madrid’s 14 titles are doing a considerably amount of heavy lifting for the various establishments here.) There is something deep and sprawling at play here, and it would be rich terrain for sociologists to explore. All we can say is it is a powerful force, that Cork are Ireland’s best exponents of it, and Ronan O’Gara is one of Cork’s best exponents of it. 

O’Gara has proven himself to be a genius at framing and convincing his players to buy into a grander narrative, and this trip to Cork is just the latest.

Leinster be warned: there are Iliads to spun out of local rows. 

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