O'Gara will be the main man in La Rochelle next season. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Bouncing Back

Ronan O'Gara and La Rochelle still have their best days ahead of them

The Top 14 club is set up to consistently push for trophies in the coming seasons.

LA ROCHELLE MIGHT not have to wait too long for another crack at Toulouse or another shot at winning silverware.

When the disappointment of yesterday’s Champions Cup final defeat in Twickenham begins to fade, Ronan O’Gara and co. will be able to focus on another trophy hunt as they go after their first-ever Top 14 title.

La Rochelle currently sit second in the table with two regular-season games left and will hope to secure a semi-final spot with wins over Pau and Clermont in the next two weekends, meaning they would avoid the barrages round of the knock-out stages.

Toulouse are leading the Top 14 right now, just a point ahead of O’Gara and Jono Gibbes’ men, so they could well end up in another final together on Friday 25 June. 

It would be intriguing to see the pair of heavyweights go to battle again and this time perhaps with 15 men each for the duration of the game. Yesterday in London, Levani Botia’s first-half red card was obviously a huge blow to La Rochelle’s chances.

They were still well within a shout of winning and pushed Toulouse all the way to the final whistle of their 22-17 defeat, leaving eight points behind them off the tee as out-half Ihaia West missed some kickable chances. They also gave away a few cheap penalties that allowed Romain Ntamack to keep the scoreboard ticking over for the victors.

Had Botia remained on the pitch, it’s not hard to imagine that La Rochelle would have a first European star to their name. It wasn’t to be yesterday but O’Gara’s level-headed post-match interviews boded well for the club bouncing back in the short-term and beyond.

O’Gara clearly understands that the best is yet ahead of La Rochelle, a club that has been on an irresistible rise in recent years. They were selling out their 16,000-capacity stadium for every single game before the pandemic struck and we can be certain that those crowds will flock back to Stade Marcel Deflandre again next season.

geoffrey-doumayrou-and-raymond-rhule-with-head-coach-ronan-ogara-after-the-game O'Gara consoles his players at Twickenham. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

There is a great sense of community about Stade Rochelais as a club, with the scenes around their win over Leinster in the semi-final and as they departed La Rochelle this week to fly to London highlighting just how fanatical their supporters are. 

Filling the stadium every other weekend helps pay the salaries of La Rochelle’s undoubtedly star-littered squad. The likes of Will Skelton, Uini Atonio, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Brice Dulin, Dillin Leyds, and Raymond Rhule are top-class players who will continue to drive the standards that O’Gara sets. 

The Irishman will certainly see scope for improving his squad with further investment. Powerful Stade Français centre Jonathan Danty is set to join this summer while there will be several other new arrivals. O’Gara has already enticed one fellow Munster man to La Rochelle in the shape of Darren Sweetnam, while James Cronin has also been linked with a move to the Top 14 side.

O’Gara is a hands-on coach who also believes he can improve the quality of performances from the players he already has in La Rochelle. He and Gibbes, who departs for Clermont this summer to leave O’Gara as the main man in charge, have spent lots of time improving the squad spirit and culture over the last year. 

O’Gara is of the view that a good vibe will always result in better individual showings, while he will also back his technical and tactical coaching to improve these already excellent players.

With a strong budget and a passionate club president in the longstanding Vincent Merling, La Rochelle is a club that now has very solid foundations and big ambitions to push on to the next level of being consistent contenders and trophy winners.

Managing the disappointment of losing a final and having to bounce back quickly – they face Pau next Saturday – will be another new challenge for them but even if this season doesn’t end with a Top 14 title, it will go down as a major step forward for the club.

There’s no reason why they won’t be back in contention on both fronts again next season and O’Gara’s decision to sign a three-year contract until 2024 shows that he can see plenty of scope for further growth.

tawera-kerr-barlow-dejected-after-the-game La Rochelle are still chasing the Top 14 title. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

He has obvious ambitions of coaching Ireland in the future but O’Gara’s decision to stay put in France for the next few years makes total sense. He will find it hard not to see yesterday as a massive chance that slipped away but this is really just the beginning for him as a head coach.

With Gibbes heading for the exit and soon to be a rival in Clermont, O’Gara gets even more control next season. The signs so far indicate that he will make plenty of shrew decisions.

ROG and La Rochelle are here to stay. 

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