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'It's a shame for a semi-final, it's unacceptable' - Ronan O'Gara

La Rochelle are frustrated at Racing moving the clash to Lens in the north of France.

La Rochelle boss Ronan O'Gara.
La Rochelle boss Ronan O'Gara.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated May 13th 2022, 8:00 PM

LA ROCHELLE HEAD coach Ronan O’Gara said it is “unacceptable” that his side’s Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 could take place in front of a small crowd in Lens, a city in the north of France.

Racing earned home venue advantage for the final-four clash but their own Paris La Défense Arena in the capital city was unavailable having already been booked for two concerts by French rap group Sexion d’Assaut this weekend.

That meant Racing had to find a new venue and they opted for Stade Bollaert-Delelis, the 38,223-capacity home of Ligue 1 football team RC Lens.

Lens is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Paris and it’s uncertain how many Racing fans will venture north, while it takes seven hours to drive there from La Rochelle, meaning O’Gara’s men are unlikely to have a great deal of support for Sunday’s semi-final.

Earlier this week, La Rochelle general director Pierre Venayre expressed the club’s frustration about the venue and O’Gara echoed that sentiment today.

“Unfortunately, the stands are going to be a bit empty,” said O’Gara. “I think it’s a shame for a semi-final, it’s unacceptable.

“I spare a thought for our supporters who have to drive for seven hours to support their team because there are very few flights to Lens. I know that because my wife tried to find one but she couldn’t.

“Setting that aside, I’m focused on the match this weekend which presents a great opportunity for us to write a new page of history for the club and break new ground.”

La Rochelle face an intriguing challenge on Sunday as they take on Racing, who they beat 19-0 at home in the Top 14 back in March, having lost 23-10 in Paris last September.

england-v-wales-uefa-euro-2016-group-b-england-walkaround-stade-felix-bollaert-delelis Stade Bollaert-Delelis hosted four games at Euro 2016. Source: PA

The Parisians have lost three Champions Cup finals and are on a quest to end their European pain, but La Rochelle are looking to bounce back from being beaten by Toulouse in last season’s final.

“We lost in the final last year but the past doesn’t interest me anymore,” said O’Gara. “It’s true Racing have lost three finals, so I think there will be a lot of frustration on their part, notably the last one [in 2020] where they just lost out to Exeter behind closed doors.

“We’re in the last four but I would like to think we’ll be in the final and then be the ‘last man standing’.

“The outcome of this match will hinge on the little details, primarily how the teams cope with the pressure and how they respond to it. But we do have that experience now.”

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Indeed, O’Gara believes that La Rochelle have evolved since he joined in 2019 as head coach under then-director of rugby Jono Gibbes. They came up short in the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals last season but O’Gara feels they have improved since.

Now he hopes to see his men advance past Racing to meet either Leinster or Toulouse in this season’s European decider in Marseille.

“I’ve seen this team evolve in the three seasons here,” said O’Gara. “We’ve reached two finals and three semi-finals, so we’ve built experience.

“I feel the squad has matured with regards to approaching these big knock-out matches. We’re well-armed now and it’s a real pleasure to work with these players.

“They’re more mature but also more united and above all, well aware of their strengths and weaknesses. We have amazing leaders who are clearly capable of going further in this competition. I have a lot of pride in this squad.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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