Dublin: 16°C Thursday 29 July 2021

Ronan O'Gara heads to yet another European semi-final as La Rochelle win

La Rochelle reach their first Champions Cup semi-final with a 45-21 win over Sale.

Gregory Alldritt celebrates his try.
Gregory Alldritt celebrates his try.
Image: Dave Winter/INPHO



AT THIS STAGE we may as well rename them La ROG-helle. Yes, the Munster and Ireland legend’s influence on the French club is that great, eclipsed only by Ireland’s interest in the progress he is making there.

You only have to look at the Top14 table to get an idea of the impact Ronan ‘ROG’ O’Gara has had on a club who have yet to win a French championship in their 123-year history. La Rochelle are currently second in the table and on the back of this thumping win, they’ve also reached the semi-finals of the Champions Cup for the first time. Little wonder so many Munster fans want to relocate O’Gara to Thomond Park.

He’d be a good fit. So much of his influence is visible in this La Rochelle side. No team in this year’s competition has kicked the ball in play more; no team in France is considered as well organised. The first La Rochelle try in this 24-point win was a perfect illustration of this, O’Gara fingerprints all over it, as their New Zealand born out-half, Ihaia West, sent the ball into the sky, not once but twice, in the same move.

daniel-du-preez-comes-up-against-levani-botia Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

The end result was a try for Gregory Alldritt, their French international, yet it wouldn’t have happened without firstly the coaching expertise to identify Sale’s aerial weakness; secondly the accuracy of West’s boot and most importantly, the absolute brilliance of Victor Vito, their New Zealand backrower, who collected West’s kick, stepped off his left foot and then offloaded for Alldritt to finish it off.

This came 27 minutes into the contest and looked, to all intents and purposes, that it would be remembered as the game’s key turning point. Not so. Even their second try, scored nine minutes later, didn’t tick that particular box.

Instead it was their third try, finished majestically by Raymond Rhule, their South African winger, which will be stored in the memory banks forever – and in Simon Hammersley’s case, will be something that’ll haunt his dreams until he is an old man.

Again, you have to credit the La Rochelle coaching team for their creativity, a set-piece move that saw their hooker van der Werwe throw to the tail of the line-out. Ten seconds later, Rhule was touching down under the posts after running from deep to take West’s pop pass, gliding through a gap in the Sale midfield before stepping Hammersley so cheekily that it was practically ill-mannered.

With that, the game was done. Sure, there were still another 39 minutes remaining on the clock but psychologically Sale were shot, remembering how hard they had to work for their 16 first-half points and how easily La Rochelle had gathered their 18.   

La Rochelle’s defence is considered the best in France; Rhule the one weakness in it, evident in the only Sale try of the first half, when Byron McGuigan easily went passed him before offloading to Sam James who ran it in.

That moment aside, Sale got nothing cheaply. Dominant in the opening nine minutes of the game, they had only three points – scored by Dubliner AJ McGinty – to show for it. In contrast, La Rochelle rubbed that penalty out with one of their own after just 70 seconds of attacking play, the value of keeping the ball alive rewarded when they won a penalty, which West scored.

raymond-rhule-with-tom-curry Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

To think that La Rochelle retained only eight of the team that destroyed Gloucester a week ago. They really have depth. They also had a 6-3 lead, when West scored a second penalty before MacGinty got an equalising score after Tom Curry caused absolute mayhem at the breakdown.

Things were livening up, and when Alldritt scored that 27th minute try, the temperature needed to be checked again. MacGinty, though, kept Sale in touch with a third penalty, badly struck but still accurate enough to go over the bar via a post.

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That made it 13-9, but only briefly, as Springbok Faf De Klerk’s attempted pass to Marland Yarde was picked off by Dillyn Leyds who spilled it but crucially gathered it off the floor before it went forward, prior to running in his seventh try of the season, La Rochelle’s second of the afternoon. When West added the extras, and the score moved to 18-9, you could have sworn it was over.

Not yet, though. A combination of James, De Klerk, Curry and McGuigan saw the ball move seamlessly through the Sale backline, McGuigan eventually gifting the ball to James, who crossed the line. MacGinty converted, just two points separating the teams at the break.

Well, that soon changed. Within a minute of the restart we had that sizzling try from Rhule. Suddenly it was 25-16.

Ten minutes later, the gap was up to 16, Hammersley again embarrassed. West’s kick took a bad bounce but the defending from Hammersley was worse. Rhule kicked on, then raced on, then scored.

He was involved again on 61 minutes, his pass inside to Geoffrey Doumayrou, their outside centre, resulting in yet another try. A final one then arrived on 69 minutes, again scored by Doumayrou, the pass supplied by Leyds this time.

A place in the last four awaits, McGuigan’s late consolation try an absolute irrelevance in the overall context of this game.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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