Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
James Crombie/INPHO Ronan O'Gara at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille for Friday's Captain's Run.
# Familiar Foes
'We need to get stuck into him, that’s the biggest compliment I can give Johnny'
Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton have both given their thoughts ahead of tomorrow’s Champions Cup final in Marseille.

IT’S A FASCINATING reunion which has naturally taken much of the spotlight in the lead-up to tomorrow’s Heineken Champions Cup final in Marseille.

On the pitch, Johnny Sexton, veteran out-half who at 36 years of age is still pulling the strings and calling the shots for a Leinster team who are looking to win their – and his – fifth Champions Cup title.

Watching on from the sidelines will be his old rival for the Ireland 10 jersey, La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara. 

A once famously fractious relationship has long since become much more civil, O’Gara even sending Sexton a text this week to see if his old friend fancied meeting up in Marseille ahead of tomorrow’s decider at the Stade Vélodrome.

“He just asked if I wanted to meet for coffee, but the times didn’t allow,” Sexton said during Leinster’s post-Captain’s Run press conference, adding with a smile that he was “very busy today.”

“Look, he’s done a fantastic job with them,” the Leinster captain continued.

jonathan-sexton Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Sexton speaks to the media in Marseille. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Fair play to him, getting to three finals in a row, that’s a great achievement with a team that historically wasn’t a powerhouse in France but someone like Jono Gibbes needs to take huge credit for that as well, for the work that he’s done over the last couple of years. We know him well obviously.

“So yeah, they’re a team to be reckoned with and they obviously knocked out us out last year, so that’s all our focus. Myself and ROG (rivalry), I don’t even know how to think about that considering I’m a player and he’s a coach.

“I thought the Contepomi clash would have been more interesting, to be honest. And I don’t think they’ve been in touch.”

Jokes aside, O’Gara was asked to outline what makes his former Ireland teammate such an influential presence on the pitch during his own press conference a little later on Friday afternoon.

“I don’t have an hour, genuinely to explain what he’s good at,” O’Gara said.

I think when you come out of your playing days, you see the game a little bit differently, you see the importance of relationships, you see the importance of enjoying the journey – a lot of people I enjoyed it with aren’t around anymore, they passed away unfortunately – so you’ve got to be reminded we’re in a great place, you’ve got to be able to enjoy tomorrow.

“I’ve experienced every emotion with Johnny and I respect him a lot. I enjoy his mindset, and I enjoy how he goes about his business.

“I think he’s happier than his hotel wasn’t near mine because he wasn’t too keen on the coffee. It’s easier when you don’t have to…I can drink coke tomorrow or drink water, the boys have got to suffer on both teams and they’ve got to prepare mentally, and I’ve got to prepare mentally as the coach, that’s for certain, but he’s going to be 37 in July and that’s some achievement to be playing the way he is at the minute.

ronan-ogara Laszlo Geczo / INPHO O'Gara speaks to the press in Marseille. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“We need to get stuck into him, that’s the biggest compliment I can give him because I think they play differently when he’s on the pitch.”

O’Gara also admitted that being able to name Will Skelton in his starting team represented a major boost for his side, stating there are “very few players in the world” like the powerful Australian lock.

Skelton, who played a key role in wins over Leinster with both Saracens (2019) and La Rochelle (2021), had been battling a calf injury in recent weeks but starts alongside Thomas Lavault in the second row.

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“It’s a massive boost,” O’Gara said.

“I don’t think you can overestimate what he will do for our team. Very few players in the world like him. It’s been a really careful plan to try and get it to this stage. It’s delicate when you have a frame like he has and unique calf muscles like he has but he is ready to go.

“Obviously he is shy on game time but he is a serious professional, hidden behind working in the shade behind the scenes, so it is a massive boost for our team. He gives us energy. I don’t think opposition like playing him. 

“Physically he is very difficult to play against so it is a massive, massive, massive boost to us this week.” 

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen also downplayed any concern surrounding Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe, who have both been named to start after recovering from injuries sustained in the semi-final win over Toulouse.

“I think they’ve been okay the two of them,” Cullen said. “So, yeah looking forward to seeing the two lads go. They weren’t major concerns from our point of view, contrary to some opinion out there.” 

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