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'I'm in it to win. I'm not in it to partake' - ROG and La Rochelle target European crown

The Cork man’s coaching philosophy continues to impress.

La Rochelle celebrate a try against Leinster.
La Rochelle celebrate a try against Leinster.
Image: Dave Winter/INPHO

IT DOESN’T COME as any surprise given that he’s nearing the end of his sixth season of coaching in the Top 14, but it’s still impressive to listen to Ronan O’Gara run through the first half of a press conference in fluent French.

The Cork accent is always there, of course, and his answers are pockmarked with “d’you know what I mean?” but the fluidity of his communication with the French journalists underlines how at home O’Gara is over there now.

He smiles when the questions start coming en anglais, pausing and joking that the “Ireland mafia are online” by way of acknowledging the interest back home as his La Rochelle team prepare for Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final against Toulouse.

O’Gara’s four-season spell as an assistant with Racing 92 was an intro into the world of professional coaching and a successful one at that as the club won the Top 14 in 2016 and reached a Champions Cup decider the same year.

Thereafter, O’Gara took up an offer from the Crusaders and was a key part of Scott Robertson’s coaching team as the Christchurch franchise won two Super Rugby titles in his two-year spell in New Zealand.

France came calling again in 2019 and O’Gara took the chance to become a head coach for the first time with La Rochelle, working alongside director of rugby Jono Gibbes – who will depart this summer for Clermont and leave O’Gara to become the main man.

La Rochelle are clearly a club moving in the right direction and it’s obvious why O’Gara agreed to sign a new three-year deal that will keep him there through until 2024.

Les Maritimes were playing in the second-tier Pro D2 as recently as 2014 but they have emerged as a real force in recent times. This weekend’s Champions Cup finale pits them against longstanding Top 14 and European powerhouses Toulouse, who are a point ahead of them in the French league table at present.

“We’re at a very different stage of our journey in La Rochelle but the ambition is huge in this club,” says O’Gara.

“I don’t see any reason [for not aiming to match Toulouse] – we’ve got the best supporters, we’ve got an incredible stadium, we’ve got a brilliant surface to play on and what’s going to happen from now on is that you’re going to get players that want to come here because if you’ve got a good coaching group, good facilities and you’ve got a good playing group, why not?

“That’s the long-term project but it’s a slightly more exciting project for this Saturday.”

ronan-ogara-and-jono-gibbes-arrive-for-the-match O'Gara before the clash with Leinster. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

Indeed, O’Gara continually comes back to La Rochelle not underselling themselves ahead of this final. He felt they could beat Leinster in the semi-final if they played to their potential and that proved to be the case.

So while some will expect Toulouse’s history and pedigree to count at Twickenham, O’Gara looks at his own team with excitement.

“You’ve got Bourgarit, Skelton, Gourdon, Vito, Alldritt, Kerr-Barlow, West, Botia, Doumayrou, Dulin, Rhule, Leyds – there’s threats all over the pitch.

“For me, there’s a problem if you’re not in a Champions Cup final. Yeah, you’ve got to try and mix their forces together and get them playing for each other but that’s easy.

“I’m very proud of what this club has done and the opportunity it has given me but at the same time, there’s a game to play and you know I’m in it to win. I’m not in it to partake.”

While this final is new ground for La Rochelle as a club, there is plenty of trophy-winning experience within the squad including World Cup winners Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, as well as Champions Cup victor and key man Will Skelton.

Gibbes has tasted glory in this competition with Leinster, while O’Gara won two titles with Munster as a player, as well as feeling the pain of defeat in his first final in 2000 against Northampton.

“For me, a good student, a good player is open to how other people have failed,” says O’Gara.

“The boys here would know how I failed in my first Champions Cup final when I was really, really poor. So, for them to know that it’s OK to fail and they have seen their coach fail many times, that means that hopefully they can see this guy is vulnerable.

“If the guys feel that they can trust me, then I’m sure that will probably open up a little bit more and make for a deeper bond between me and the player.

“That’s very important because it is a long journey we have been on, but the season has gone like that [very quickly]. It has felt like we have been in a good dynamic and we have been enjoying it.”

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la-rochelle-fans-outside-the-stadium La Rochelle have passionate supporters. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

O’Gara has focused on the human side of coaching to a greater degree since his time with the Crusaders, appreciating that his relationship with players is as important as anything else, but he is also still finely attuned nailing the technical and tactical dimensions of the game.

O’Gara used the phrase ‘KBA’ [Keep Ball Alive] after his team’s round-of-16 win over Gloucester and it has been repeated frequently ever since. Offloading is one element of La Rochelle’s play, but the Irishman stresses that it’s not everything.

“I think you’ve got to have different tools in your toolbox depending on what kind of weather conditions you face and what kind of opposition you face,” he explains.

“Like, that would be a big focus in terms of the speed of the ball will always beat the defender. A lot of people don’t understand that, so if you’re bringing the ball to the ground every time and you’re looking to recycle it from the ground, it’s far easier to defend.

“You look at Toulouse, they don’t like going to ground and they’ve a brilliant offload game and that’s one of their massive strengths. You can say we have a plan to stop that but it’s very difficult to stop it and that’s why they’re so good at it.

“But I think a lot of people understand that if you want to be successful, you can’t just have one game plan. You’ve got to have different weapons and be able to pull them out when it’s the right time, and there’s a skill in your decision-makers knowing what play to play at a certain time.

“So we’re always trying to create situations where you empower the players to make better decisions under stressful situations.”

Mention of Toulouse’s offloading quality is a sharp reminder of the challenge La Rochelle face this weekend and O’Gara knows that limiting what Ugo Mola’s team can do is crucial.

“There isn’t a team that is more deadly with the ball, so we’ve got to control the ball. They are incredibly good at keeping the ball and doing fantastic things with it, but also they have Kolbe and Dupont – two of the guys with the biggest X-factor in world rugby so all of a sudden there’s no danger and the next second you’re under your posts.

“There’s very few teams in the world, even at Test level, that have Dupont and Kolbe in the same team so that’s what Toulouse have.

“They are deadly off turnover ball but they’re deadly with the ball so we’ve got to try and starve them of ball.”

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Murray Kinsella

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