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'Ronan is an ultimate competitor. He has asked the question ‘Why not us?''

Former All Black Victor Vito has hailed O’Gara’s influence on La Rochelle.

O'Gara joined La Rochelle in 2019.
O'Gara joined La Rochelle in 2019.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

FORMER ALL BLACK and two-time World Cup winner Victor Vito has hailed Ronan O’Gara’s impact on La Rochelle ahead of their Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster tomorrow.

Vito, who joined the Top 14 club in 2016, has been impressed with the Irishman’s influence in La Rochelle’s rise since he came on board as head coach in 2019.

Working alongside director of rugby Jono Gibbes, O’Gara has improved La Rochelle’s defence and attack, helping to make them a more consistent force. They currently sit second in the Top 14 and are looking forward to meeting Leinster in Europe for the first time tomorrow.

With Gibbes departing for Clermont this summer, O’Gara will be the main man at La Rochelle from next season having signed a new three-year deal with the club.

“Ronan is just an ultimate competitor,” said Vito of O’Gara’s influence. “I’m sure he was like that when he played with the Irish team but he just wants to win so bad.

“I think it is really infectious but it doesn’t come off too daunting because he is actually a nice guy to talk to. He is very worried about the guys and their families, how they are all going, he is quite approachable.

“He has really got an attention to detail around certain things as well. He has really just asked the question ‘Why not us?’ a lot ever since he got here.

“A lot of the boys believe we are a great team, we believe we can do great things but some of the details he has brought in along with Jono as well, we are now looking at a semi-final with Leinster – one of the teams I have been looking at from afar and wondering what was their secret and now all of sudden we are having a game with them.

“Obviously the proof is in the pudding, we still have to play them and still try to beat them but it’s just an honour to be receiving them at the same time.”

O’Gara’s coaching journey has been an intriguing one, with his first job coming as an assistant coach in Racing 92 before a move to New Zealand to join the Crusaders.

victor-vito-before-the-game Former All Blacks Victor Vito. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Vito can see the impact that spell working under Scott Robertson has had on O’Gara.

“Some of the clips he shows us and the detail he brought about how we attack with our forwards and the sort of lines we are trying to connect with our runners and that kind of thing, a lot of that is Crusaders influenced.

“But then culturally as well, just being able to connect with the guys and have a laugh, that’s maybe something that he has probably learned in New Zealand moreso.

“We are a lot more jovial maybe than his generation was when he was playing so he definitely loosened up a bit going to New Zealand and then coming to us because they love to have a laugh over here. He has tightened the screws as well which is why we have been able to find ourselves in a semi-final.”

Fascinatingly, Vito was in contact with Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster last year during the first lockdown as he looked to improve his own leadership skills.

Vito has been enthused by the development La Rochelle have gone through since his arrival in 2016.

“Funnily enough, during the lockdown I was actually speaking to Stuart Lancaster because I was trying to find ways to lead this team and just trying to pick his brain because he has been through the England set-up and now he is at Leinster,” said Vito.

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“We were talking about things and there are obviously different cultural norms, but from where it was when I got here and guys were smoking around the corner of the changing room. Now at least they’re finding somewhere else to do it!

ronan-ogara-and-tawera-kerr-barlow O'Gara with La Rochelle scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Source: Luttiau Nicolas/INPHO

“Just guys doing half a weights session and then walking off the field early if they were tired to now where it is such a professional set-up, we have amazing facilities as well and just the fact that we have started winning games has given great belief.

“We have started digging into our identity a little bit and got tighter as a team and as a group just by having those little moments: not just waiting for the club to set up a team function or whatever, it is actually bone-deep, having barbecues with the families.

“Covid has brought the importance of all that forward as well so, yeah, there is something special happening here at La Rochelle. It has taken a while but at the same time, it has happened pretty quickly.

“I feel it has taken a while probably because I am getting on but compared to when I first arrived I came here with guns blazing and different moves and different this and that, I just had to learn to do it the French way and that’s fine too because it’s a balance.

“It’s not just the New Zealand way or the English or Irish way – the French way isn’t bad either, as we have seen with some of the rugby that boys have played. So we’ve come a long way and something special is cooking. Hopefully, we can keep that going on Sunday.”

- This article was updated at 10.40am to correct ‘La Rochelle’ to ‘Leinster’ in the first paragraph.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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