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How Ronan O'Gara has helped turn La Rochelle into Top 14 contenders

The 43-year-old Cork man has had an impact on the French club’s defence and attack.

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HAVING SPENT SIX years working as an assistant coach with Racing 92 in France and the Crusaders in New Zealand, Ronan O’Gara felt ready for greater responsibility when Top 14 outfit La Rochelle came calling in 2019.

Former Leinster and Ulster coach Jono Gibbes was already in place as La Rochelle’s director of rugby, but O’Gara was offered the head coach role – meaning he is in charge of both attack and defence – and he jumped at the chance to step up.

After his first season with La Rochelle was curtailed by Covid-19, with the club sitting fifth in the Top 14, O’Gara’s influence has helped them to an excellent 2020/21 season so far, with Les Maritimes sitting second in the league just two points behind Toulouse ahead of today’s clash with Stade Français.

The former Munster out-half was previously defence coach in Racing – making a clear impact – and his role at Crusaders involved working on backline defence. O’Gara wasn’t renowned as a strong tackler in his playing days but he loves coaching defence and the results have been convincing in La Rochelle. They have the best defence in the league.

So far this season, they have conceded fewer tries and points than anyone else in the Top 14, while also giving up the joint-fewest linebreaks and being beaten by the fewest defenders. Only Lyon have a better tackle success percentage than La Rochelle.

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Among the pleasing days for O’Gara’s defence was a 9-6 win over fellow title hopefuls Racing in November, when they limited one of the most dangerous attacking teams in Europe – coached by another excellent Irish coach in Mike Prendergast – to a single linebreak.

With O’Gara pushing his players’ work-rate, La Rochelle have been very good at keeping 14 or 15 players on their feet in defence, bouncing off the ground after making tackles to ensure they can fill the width of the pitch and also have good backfield cover.

O’Gara favours an aggressive defence that sees the defenders on the edge get high as they look to shut down the ball, rather than always worrying about how many attackers the opposition have outside them.

RR

We get an example above as left wing Raymond Rhule shoots up hard despite Toulon having an overlap.

Rhule doesn’t make the tackle initially but he pressures Toulon, slows the ball from getting to the edge, then works back to make a tackle as defenders from his inside catch up too. 

The pay-off for this kind of ‘ball-watching’ defence can be high and La Rochelle tend to earn lots of turnovers. Indeed, only Stade Français’ opponents have conceded more turnovers on average than La Rochelle’s.

Unsurprisingly for a coach who came from Munster, O’Gara also backs his players to go after jackal turnovers at the breakdown. Centre Levan Botia [below], lock Will Skelton, hooker Pierre Bourgarit, back row Rémi Bourdeau, and number eight Grégory Alldritt have all been prolific in earning turnovers.

Botia

Every area of the game is interdependent, something O’Gara understood as a player and now as a coach. In La Rochelle, he has seemingly pushed the players to use their kicking game as a defensive weapon that can also create attacking chances.

This sequence against Racing gives us an example, with out-half Ihaia West kicking clear of his 22.

IW

Backs on either side of West immediately work upfield to bring their team-mates onside and La Rochelle bring a strong kick chase.

Chase

La Rochelle’s four defenders closest to the ball are well connected, with others working hard upfield in the middle of the pitch, meaning Simon Zebo’s options are limited.

Back row pair Zeno Kieft and Wiaan Liebenberg combine for a dominant double tackle on Zebo and suddenly a turnover opportunity beckons. As we see below, both Kieft and Liebenberg instantly bounce back to their feet to initiate the counter-ruck.

TO

Centre Jérémy Sinzelle and tighthead Uini Atonio follow through to shift Racing off the ball and lock Skelton – a revelation since joining from Saracens – pounces to complete the turnover, allowing scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow to move the ball away. 

Racing’s mature kicking game is no surprise given O’Gara’s tactical nous and they have kicked more than most Top 14 sides, often helping them to deny the opposition attacking possession in the La Rochelle half.

Their kicking has been an attacking weapon too, with out-halves West and Jules Plisson [2], fullback Brice Dulin, and wing Dillyn Lyeds all providing kick assists so far this season.

Kick Pass

The example below comes during last weekend’s win away against Toulon, with West using penalty advantage to find Rhule wide on the left.  

O’Gara’s influence on Racing’s attack has been impressive this season. Statistically speaking, only Toulouse and Clermont have scored more points and tries than La Rochelle so far, while they are also third in the league for clean linebreaks.

As in the instance above, they have been clinical inside the opposition 22 on several occasions. The example below against Bayonne comes without penalty advantage.

Try

This play is something we have seen from the likes of Ireland, Glasgow, Leinster, and the Highlanders in the past, so it’s not unique but it is well-executed to produce a try for scrum-half Thomas Berjon.

Bayonne clearly expect a short carry close to the ruck but lock Rémi Leroux instead drops a pass off to Berjon, who has options to hit Lyeds short off his left shoulder or pass out the back to out-half West. Instead, Berjon backs himself to finish.

O’Gara’s attack has also been sharp from set-piece platforms, with no one else scoring more than La Rochelle’s 33 tries from lineout and scrum platforms combined in the Top 14 so far.

Below, a sharp starter play from a right-hand-side lineout sees Rhule give Lyeds some time on the ball and another excellent attacking kick produces a try for wing Arthur Retière.

LO Try

While O’Gara’s plays from set-piece have been incisive and effective, Gibbes and forwards coach Grégory Patat have La Rochelle’s maul in excellent shape in defence and attack.

Bourgarit has scored eight tries in the Top 14 this season, while replacement Samuel Lagrange has three – although all 11 of those hooker tries haven’t come from mauls. As well as the maul threat, the solid functioning of the La Rochelle lineout and scrum has provided O’Gara with a fine platform for his attack to fire from.

There was been balance to La Rochelle’s attack, however, and only Toulouse have scored more tries from turnover and kick return platforms. O’Gara has his players primed and organised to strike with try-scoring intent in these ‘transition’ phases of the game.

As we see in the passage below last weekend, La Rochelle have the skillset and ambition to strike rapidly from long-range.

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Botia makes the initial break and offload for Bourdeau to link inside to Retière, who also plays scrum-half.

As we see below, Retière is then tackled by calmly offloads to Rhule.

Score

The South African wing then delivers another offload for hooker Lagrange to finish a beautiful try.

In phase play attack, La Rochelle appear to favour the 1-3-2-2 framework that is extremely popular at the top level of rugby currently. 

We get an example against Toulon as La Rochelle play off the right touchline, where back row Kevin Gourdon has resourced the breakdown and West then has a pod of three forwards around him.

1

After West uses that three-man forward pod to set a midfield ruck, we can see the next pair of two-man forward pods as West splits the first one to pass the ball wide to the left.

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La Rochelle’s shape allows them to threaten up the left-hand side.

O’Gara has clearly encouraged interplay between his forwards and backs, the result being that they have passed more often than any other team in the Top 14 so far this season.

The example below in a win over Bordeaux illustrates the fluidity of their attack.

First, Kerr-Barlow passes to hooker Bourgarit in the three-man pod and he swivels to find fullback Sinzelle [who is also versatile]…

Link

Sinzelle then darts at the line and makes the pre-contact pass to Atonio, who thunders in between two Bordeaux defenders and offloads to Bourdeau for the break…

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Bourdeau is tackled short of the tryline but out-half Plisson makes a swift clearout and Kerr-Barlow is on the scene to pick and dive over for a crucial try…

Finish

In La Rochelle’s best moments this season, the numbers on players’ backs don’t seem to matter, with forwards capable of making decisions and passing, while backs have got stuck in physically too. Their breakdown work has been very accurate, with only Montpellier having a higher percentage of ball retention.

Right now, La Rochelle look like a balanced and confident bunch of players who are enjoying their rugby. Gibbes and O’Gara have used 42 players this season in the Top 14, the spread of game time key to keeping morale high. Like most clubs, they have had to deal with Covid-19 setbacks but appear to have handled them well and maintained their momentum.

Gibbes and O’Gara have placed a huge focus on the off-pitch culture in La Rochelle. They do all their coaching through French, rather than their native English, with O’Gara feeling strongly that to do otherwise would show a lack of respect.

The La Rochelle coaches have put a major emphasis on discipline – something that has cost the club in the past – and they have suffered fewer yellow cards than anyone else in the Top 14 this season, while only Racing have conceded fewer penalties.

The La Rochelle players are clearly enjoying working with O’Gara, who has helped a number of them to rejuvenate their careers, including France fullback Brice Dublin, who he had previously worked with at Racing. 

ronan-ogara-and-jono-gibbes O'Gara is working alongside Jono Gibbes in France. Source: Luttiau Nicolas/INPHO

O’Gara recently spoke to The42 about how hard he works to connect with his players in La Rochelle, but Dulin says the Irishman also has the edge a head coach needs.

“Ronan knows how to push me to bring the best out of me and then we also know when to shut ourselves into his office to clear the air when the need arises,” Dulin told Midi Olympique recently. “It’s healthy and I like that.

O’Gara has taken a relatively patient approach with his coaching career, building knowledge and a range of experiences as an assistant with Racing and Crusaders before taking on the additional pressure in La Rochelle.

He is still only in his second season as a head coach and clearly having the experience of Gibbes as director of rugby alongside him is beneficial, but the ex-Munster and Ireland out-half appears to be moving in the right direction as his skillset continues to grow.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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