O'Gara celebrates with Levani Botia. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

O'Gara's stock continues to rise after stunning weekend in Dublin

The former Ireland and Munster outhalf will be in demand but sees La Rochelle as a long-term project.

AT 4AM on Sunday morning, the players and coaches of La Rochelle stepped off a plane to greet a large, lively crowd who had decided to make a night of it and wait for their team to arrive home with the Champions Cup trophy. Twelve hours later, they were back on the port in the old French town for the proper homecoming, where another large crowd was waiting to see their heroes.

In a town where rugby is the dominant sport, they’re getting used to this strange feeling of success and so far, they quite like it. Last year’s Champions Cup triumph was the club’s first major trophy and they followed that up by becoming only the fifth team to win the competition back-to-back. Things could even get better in the weeks ahead. La Rochelle will be involved in the Top 14 semi-finals next month and look primed to win a first Bouclier on 17 June. 

Basking in the glory of the club’s latest statement success over the weekend, Ronan O’Gara outlined his ambitions to one day coach Ireland but for now, La Rochelle remains his focus. The former Munster and Ireland outhalf is contracted until 2027 and while contracts are made to be broken in sport, he views the La Rochelle team as a long-term project. 

O’Gara watched his team lose Top 14 and Champions Cup finals in 2021 but on Saturday, they delivered a stunning display of self-belief to turn an early 17-0 deficit, away from home, into a hard-earned, thoroughly deserved one-point win.

Having transformed the club since his arrival in the summer of 2019, O’Gara is determined to oversee a period of sustained success before the next chapter of his remarkable coaching career unfolds.

“That’s the plan obviously, but they’re tiny margins,” O’Gara said. “Look at today, this bus goes home happy, their (Leinster) bus goes home devastated.

“It’s brutal in that regard so what’s important I think, is we did learn (from) losing a Top 14 final, we did learn getting beaten in Twickenham by Toulouse (2021 Champions Cup final), but you nearly have to be ruthless in your head as the coach to go ‘stop’ – this is finals footy, finals footy is different.

You need to understand that what happens during the season isn’t good enough or won’t be good enough in a semi-final or final.

“Considering what was thrown at this team today, it’s incredibly positive. Imagine their belief after that? It should be sky-high. But one think to bring you down to earth will be the Top 14 when we come up against the same size men and they belt the shit out of you.

“So that will test us, but we’ve started well, we’ve got a jump on other teams, we’ve got two in the bag out of two. It’s fantastic and the staff and the boys deserve huge credit.”

La Rochelle’s post-match press conference on Saturday was typically insightful while also highly entertaining. Aside from airing various grievances against Leinster and tournament organisers EPCR – before reports began to surface of an alleged altercation at halftime involving players and coaches from both sides – O’Gara played up the ‘us against them’ narrative which is clearly working a treat with his squad, warning that “we’re seen as the little team, but that’s about to change.” 

ronan-ogara-celebrates-after-the-game-with-his-mother-joan O'Gara celebrates with his mother Joan. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The truth is that La Rochelle are now one of the biggest club sides in the world. Back-to-back European champions and with an operating budget which reportedly stands at more than €30 million per season, they won’t be going away anytime soon.

On Saturday they overcame a Leinster side that took to the field with 14 Grand Slam winners. In the week leading up to the game, O’Gara drilled home the message to his players that they too boast a Test quality side.

“We built our week on that,” he explained.

“I feel there was a group there that can contest against the best teams in the world – Greg (Alldritt), the best seven in (Levani) Botia, (Will) Skelton at five, (Uini) Atonio at three, (Tawera) Kerr-Barlow at nine, (Antoine) Hastoy at 10, the French 12 (Jonathan Danty), an Australia/Samoan brilliant 13 (UJ Seuteni), two South African wingers and Brice Dulin at 15, a brilliant loosehead in Joel Sclavi, Georges Henri Colombe is about to, if he wants to move his ass and do good stuff. Quentin (Lespiaucq Brettes) was brilliant.

“Ultan Dillane had a point to prove and he proved it brilliantly. I’m delighted for him, he was top.

“We can’t play Test games but I think we felt that we had a Test team.”

ultan-dillane-celebrates-with-the-trophy La Rochelle's Ultan Dillane celebrates with the trophy. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

A team that are now serial winners. As O’Gara outlined, it would have been easy to throw in the towel when 17-0 down but instead his players never looked rattled, sticking to their gameplan and patiently grinding Leinster down.

That self-belief trickles from the top down. All week, as he did ahead of Marseille last year, O’Gara said all the right things, exuding confidence as he took the focus off the opponent and talked up the strength of his own players.

“If you don’t have buy-in from your leaders or senior players you’re dead,” O’Gara added.

“I think what they like is probably consistency of behaviours, so people talk about being disciplined today but sure, it’s talk. Discipline is an act, so it’s of preparation, of pictures you give to the referee and you try get better every single week. So we talk about that but we also review it, and you can’t be good at everything.

“We train, highlight what we want to get better at and then we either get a nod of approval from the boys or ‘No, ROG we think you should take it this way’, we’ll do it a bit like that.

“I think it’s been good in the fact we’ve had a lot of time off, the boys enjoy time off but then they train hard.

But we put a huge emphasis in buying good people. So it’s brilliant in the fact that we don’t have any bad eggs in our squad, which is a crazy thing to say in French rugby. We do not have any bad eggs, and it’s wonderful.

“And they all want to get better. There’s so many fellas gutted. This week was horrible because only 23 can play, and I’ve got to front those conversations, not the assistant coaches. That takes energy. You’re essentially knifing a guy into the stomach to say I don’t have a place for you. Everything he stands for, all his self-belief, all his values, you’ve just destroyed them in a 10 second spurt.

“That hurts me, that hurts him, but we try to make sure everyone gets a shot and when the boys have got a shot, most of them have taken their chance and they’ve made the place better.”

As has O’Gara. Where they go from here will be fascinating to watch.

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