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Man mountain Skelton loving life in La Rochelle working with O'Gara

The 6ft 8ins Wallaby has been in sensational form this season.

Skelton celebrates after his try against Leinster.
Skelton celebrates after his try against Leinster.

THE LA ROCHELLE players have a PlayStation 2 in their team room and when they fire up the classic Rugby 08 game, Will Skelton and a few others enjoy playing with an Ireland side that has several players with very high ratings.

Chief among them is Ronan O’Gara with a rating of 93 out of 100 and though Skelton jokes that the La Rochelle players take glee in putting the Irishman on the bench, he also quickly highlights that his now head coach is “a legend of the game.”

Giant second row Skelton, who has been in sensational form for the French club since joining from Saracens last year, wasn’t sure what O’Gara would be like as a coach. The 6ft 8ins Australian international points out that good players don’t always make good coaches.

O’Gara, though, has been “awesome.” Skelton enjoys how direct the La Rochelle head coach is with his players and recounts how the Irishman let him know his conditioning wasn’t up to scratch earlier this season.

“In one of the first games against Toulouse, he ripped into me, Lopeti [Timani] and Uini [Atonio], and he just said in front of the whole team, ‘You’re not fit enough.’

“It was a wake-up call that I’d probably been saying in my head but then to hear it from one of the head honchos, him and Jono [Gibbes, the club's director of rugby], was an eye-opener, and I guess he’s that type of coach.”

La Rochelle had a two-week break after that game and Skelton was one of a few players who “got flogged” in extra fitness sessions. The 29-year-old hasn’t looked back since, playing some of the best rugby of his career as he has marked himself out as one of the most effective forwards in the sport.

He enjoyed his three seasons with Saracens, where he won two Premiership titles and a Champions Cup, but says he and his family feel very at home in La Rochelle despite the initial challenges of the language barrier.

“My wife grew up by the ocean and on my first trip here, we did a tour and I didn’t even know it was on the water,” explains Skelton.

rugby-french-champ-top-14-la-rochelle-v-lou The Wallabies lock has been superb in France. Source: Lairys Laurent/ABACA

“We had a little tour around the city and straight away my wife had a smile on her face. Then we met the coaches, ROG and Jono – they were very direct, very straight-up about what they saw in me and how I could fit into the club.

“It’s been an enjoyable experience and hopefully we can keep riding this wave that we’re on at the moment.”

Skelton is on a three-year contract with the club and he and his wife, Kate, recently had their first child, a boy they named Julius – though the La Rochelle players have given him the more French version of Jules. 

“There are a lot of people who have been hit worse with Covid and with the travel stuff, so we’re grateful and we’re lucky that my support group here is quite strong,” says Skelton of the challenge of being on the other side of the world from home.

“We just had our little baby, so what’s probably been the big thing is that our families couldn’t meet him and my wife didn’t have as much support, but, no, we’ve been good.”

While Skelton is settled in France, there’s no doubt his performances on the pitch will have Wallabies boss Dave Rennie pining to get him back into Test rugby for the first time since 2016.

The second row only has 18 caps so isn’t eligible under the ‘Giteau Law’ but one has to presume that Rugby Australia will do its utmost to get him back into the Wallabies mix sooner rather than later. 

For his part, Skelton wants to play Test rugby and would love to be involved in the 2023 World Cup.

“Eligibility wise, all I can really do is play well here, and if they change the rules, they change the rules.”

luke-mcgrath-kicks-past-will-skelton Skelton is a key man for La Rochelle. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

His immediate focus is on this weekend’s Champions Cup final against Toulouse at Twickenham, where La Rochelle can win the club’s first major trophy.

Their semi-final win over Leinster was impressive and there is a sense of self-belief about the club this week ahead of the clash with Toulouse.

“We wanted to come out firing, we wanted to be physical, but also show a good blend of not only our attacking game but our kicking game,” says Skelton of that win over Leinster.

“We weathered the storm at the start there and I thought once we got our discipline under [control], we were able to showcase the tools that we have in our toolbox.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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