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'He ripped into me, Lopeti and Uini': The moment Ronan O'Gara made sure Will Skelton and co knew who is boss at La Rochelle

By PA
(Photo by Getty Images)

Will Skelton has hailed awesome La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara as the French club prepare for their debut Heineken Champions Cup final appearance. La Rochelle, who are also challenging strongly for the French Top 14 title, meet four-time European title holders Toulouse at Twickenham on Saturday.

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It is the first all-French European Cup final since 2015, but also notable for another major milestone on 44-year-old O’Gara’s coaching journey. The former Ireland fly-half – he won 128 caps, scored more than 1,000 Test points, toured three times with the British and Irish Lions and helped Munster win two European crowns – has only been coaching for eight years.

But after spells at Racing 92 and with the Crusaders in New Zealand, he now heads up the biggest day in La Rochelle’s 123-year history. “He is a legend of the game,” said Skelton, the La Rochelle Australia international who was a European Cup winner with Saracens two years ago.

“Me and the boys get the old Rugby ’08 up on PlayStation 2 in the team room, and we often play with Ireland and we put him on the pitch! He’s got a 95 rating or a 99 rating or something. I didn’t know how he would go as a coach, though, because it doesn’t always transfer – being a great player into a great coach – but for me, he has been awesome. He has been someone who has helped on the side of, I guess, playing to your strengths. For me, having a coach like that, it’s the little stuff.

“I remember, in one of my 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 had probably been saying in my head, but then to hear it from one of the coaches was an eye-opener. I guess he is that type of coach. He is pretty direct, he is straight, and I enjoy it.”

Skelton, La Rochelle’s 6ft 8in front-five talisman, has proved pivotal to his team’s European Cup success this season. He scored a try in the semi-final victory over Leinster and has displayed form consistent enough to spark talk of a possible Test squad recall down under. Selection restrictions currently surround Wallabies playing overseas but Skelton, who won 18 caps between 2014 and 2016, continues to perform at maximum efficiency.

“I’ve signed a three-year deal here, so it’s out of my hands at the moment,” he added. “All I can really do is play good footie and, I guess, hope for the best. It’s a goal for every player to play in the World Cup, but I think it’s disrespectful if I am here sitting and thinking that I will be in the team two or three years away when I haven’t even been in the (Australia) jersey since 2016. You have got to earn every right to play for your country and, like I said, eligibility-wise, all I can really do is play well here, and if they change the rules, they change the rules.”

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Flankly 3 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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