La Rochelle head coach Ronan O'Gara. Dave Winter/INPHO

'I’m shaped by my years spent in Munster. That’s innate in me'

Ronan O’Gara is hoping to lead La Rochelle to Champions Cup success this weekend, with old foes Leinster standing in his way.

IN MARSEILLE ON Saturday evening, Ronan O’Gara will look to land the biggest prize yet of his impressive, fledgling coaching career.

It’s not yet 10 years since O’Gara was still lacing up his boots for Ireland and Munster. He took his first coaching role with Racing 92 in 2013, moved on to New Zealand’s Crusaders in 2018 before returning to France in 2019, where he now calls the shot at La Rochelle. 

O’Gara took La Rochelle to the Heineken Champions Cup final last year, losing to Toulouse, but gets a second shot at landing European club rugby’s biggest prize this weekend. That his side have reached the final for a second year running is in itself a fine achievement. 

Then again, O’Gara’s Munster loved this tournament. It’s no surprise he’s brought that same desire for European success to the west of France.

“Well I think I’m shaped by my years spent in Munster,” O’Gara says.

I feel very fortunate to be part of that group that gave me great life lessons with great leaders and great rugby players. I think that’s innate in me and I’m very grateful for that. I think that’s a big strength of mine, but as you go along in life you try and add the best bits from every environment you’ve been in, be it Irish teams, Lions teams, Racing, Crusaders. 

“You’d like to think you’d pick a little bit up wherever you go but obviously with the chunk of my time I’m shaped by what happened in Munster. So I think the Munster team I played in had a lot of good values, a lot of good players so it would be foolish of me not to tap into that, most definitely.”

The fact that it’s Leinster standing in his way this weekend adds an extra layer of intrigue around the contest. The province are chasing history of their own, aiming to draw level with five-time winners Toulouse at the top of the roll of honour.

It’s a fascinating matchup, with La Rochelle dumping Leinster out at the semi-final stages last season. Leinster boss Leo Cullen has referenced how La Rochelle have some inside knowledge on his squad. O’Gara’s assistant coach, Donnacha Ryan, played in Ireland teams alongside the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, while the man himself played with and coached Leinster captain Johnny Sexton.

“I certainly understand the mindset of Johnny,” O’Gara continues. “That he’s a competitor, that’s the understatement of the season. I think I understand the Irish psyche. I understand the French psyche and I have a different view now that I’ve been out of my bubble for 10 years and I see the game very differently than I did as a player. 

ronan-ogara-and-jonathan-sexton O'Gara worked with Sexton at Racing. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I think for me, it’s about understanding the threats they will pose but genuinely I think as a coach so much of my focus has to be on my boys. It’s very very difficult because I’ve never found any occasion in my time as a coach where you get your players to a certain stage where they’re absolutely humming.

“There’s always work-ons in our game and you have to respect the threats that Leinster pose and we do the same as we respected Stade Francais, Montpellier, Bordeaux and Racing. So the flow of the week is quite similar.

What happens in semi-finals and finals is the margins become smaller and smaller and your capacity to execute gets challenged more so than it does in a regular-season game, so that’s what makes it fascinating. There’s some serious players on both sides so it will be about who can put a squeeze on the other team and what team will probably crack under the pressure.”

The O’Gara versus Sexton narrative will naturally take much of the focus this week. Initially fierce rivals at international level, the two outhalves eventually warmed to each other and enjoyed a good relationship when Sexton the player worked alongside O’Gara the coach at Racing. 

“First of all he’s a great competitor and he loves rugby,” O’Gara continues.

“People forget that, rugby is such a great game so you play it for as long as you can. If you’re good you keep going and he’s outstaying the rest in his position comfortably.

But I think he’s also been fuelled, if you remember, there wasn’t much of a deal made by the fact he didn’t make the Lions tour (last summer) but that would have hurt him deeply. So now it’s another example of his excellent resilience and now he’s coming back.

“I think he’s made changes to his game in the fact he’s always been a good passer of the ball, but now he’s become a threat again, which he may have put on the back burner for the past few months but you saw against Toulouse, he has a very good running game, a good passing game, a good kicking game and he’s very good at seeing the opportunity before other people see it.

“That’s what a lot of great 10s do and he sees things quicker than other people and he’s able to manipulate his attackers and defenders into space because they’ve got great cohesion amongst them.”

Leinster certainly look a better side than the one that folded in the face of a fierce La Rochelle effort at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre 12 months ago. O’Gara feels his own squad is stronger, too, and most of his key men look set to feature at the Stade Vélodrome.

Influential second row Will Skelton came through his early injury return will no ill-effects, coming off the bench in an important Top 14 win against Stade Francais on Saturday.

la-rochelles-will-skelton Will Skelton looks set to feature in Marseille. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Today was just a clarity session and he was able to walk,” O’Gara explains. “Tomorrow will probably tell more and accordingly if it keeps going to plan, we’ll see how much we can get out of him at the weekend.”

There is more concern surrounding back rower Victor Vito, who picked up an ankle injury against Stade and was wearing a moon boot around La Rochelle HQ yesterday, but scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow has yet to be ruled out despite nursing two broken bones in his hand.

“I need to get some hurling advice and try and get one of those Mycro gloves,” O’Gara adds. 

“You’ve got to explore every possibility. Depending on his pain threshold, depending I suppose on his grip of the ball and depending on, well, the legality of it I think is okay. People have played with those hurling gloves in the past. We just have to wait and see with that.”

The next few days will provide O’Gara with a clearer indication of the team he’ll be able to send out in Marseille on Saturday evening. 

Most see Leinster as hot favourites, but La Rochelle will sense opportunity to spring an upset and win a first Champions Cup title in the club’s history. O’Gara knows the underdog mentality all too well.

Mentally we are a lot stronger (compared to last year). I think we’ve been working hard at a lot of things. You have to be very mentally strong to come back to this stage after what happened last year, even though I’m a huge fan of believing that you learn so much from getting to finals. I don’t subscribe to the fact that everything is a failure if you don’t get over the line.

“Yeah, we didn’t get over the line in Europe or in the Top14. We learned from that and we’ve an opportunity to test ourselves in a really challenging environment against a classy team this weekend.  

“I think we’ve probably timed our run nicely. If you look at what happened after losing two finals, we lost the first four or five games, yeah, the fixtures were brutal, dreadfully difficult but we’ve shown resistance, we’ve come back, we’ve made a plan, boys have dug in for each other, which was epitomised by the performance at the weekend.  

“We just needed that result, it wasn’t about the performance but we got a performance and a result so I think good teams find a way to win, and at the minute we are doing that.”

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