Kerr-Barlow: 'I'd say it's a pretty extraordinary pathway to take'
Tawera Kerr-Barlow was running a half-hour late last Thursday for his Zoom appointment – but with very good reason. Before La Rochelle could fully focus on next weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup final in Ireland, there was a Saturday afternoon Top 14 clash away to French league champions Montpellier to take care of and that meant putting in some additional hard yards on the training ground.
This dedication to the cause was an indication of the unity that exists at the Ronan O’Gara-led club. With just five players – including the pioneering hybrid Levani Botia – from the matchday 23 that eclipsed Exeter in the European semi-finals a fortnight ago in Bordeaux named for the GGL Stadium assignment, front-liners such as Kerr-Barlow could have understandably not bought into the exercise of getting an understrength XV ready.
La Rochelle after all were going into that match comfortably placed in second on the table, 10 points clear of the inconsistent Stade Francais and a semi-final berth within reach with just two rounds of fixtures remaining. However, their attitude was that they still needed to prepare well for their Montpellier trip even though their cup final clash with Leinster was the top priority [they lost 31-42, fighting back from being 10-35 behind early in the second half].
“We just wanted to prepare the lads well,” explained Kerr-Barlow, apologising for his delayed arrival for an interview where the emphasis was on La Rochelle’s prospects of becoming back-to-back Champions Cup champions and joining an exclusive club featuring only Leicester, Leinster, Toulon, Saracens.
A scorer of five tries in his seven European appearances this term, Kerr-Barlow was a reason why Leinster were heavily tipped last year to win the decider in Marseille. The effervescent scrum-half fractured his left hand in the semi-final victory over Racing and not even O’Gara checking out the use of a hurling glove from Ireland could get the wounded World Cup winner back into the selection mix.
He missed out but his absence wasn’t detrimental as La Rochelle still took the trophy with a late, late show. “I was able to help the team in a different manner. It wasn’t on the field but with the preparation, myself, Victor (Vito) and other lads who didn’t play, I was extremely happy for everyone at the club,” enthused Kerr-Barlow, dismissing his individual disappointment at missing out. “I wasn’t on the field, but it almost felt like I was. The sensation was awesome and hopefully no injuries in training and hopefully I can be available for this final.”
The expectation is that a familiar Kiwi face, Jamison Gibson-Park, will be his opposite number at the Aviva. The style of rugby in France is for teams to play more off their nine and it’s an approach Kerr-Barlow has seen in Leinster given the increased play-making influence Gibson-Park now wields compared to a few years ago.
“Jamison is a great player. I’m not sure if we crossed paths in high school, he played for Gisborne Boys but I played a lot against him in New Zealand (as a pro). He is a quality nine and he can run the socks off almost anyone and he has been doing a fabulous job for Leinster. It looks like he is a big part of how they play and the tempo and his ability to speed the game up. Definitely, I would say he is a big factor for them.
“We have had a couple of ups and downs during the year. It’s a long season and we have been under no illusions (as defending champions) that every time a team plays us, they are really trying to put their best foot forward and make a statement. But pressure is a privilege and you have to work hard to get to the final so we try to embrace the pressure but to be fair, Leinster are such a top side and we are going into this game knowing it is anyone’s game.”
La Rochelle versus Leinster has turned into quite the appetising rivalry. Twice they have clashed in the European knockouts and twice the French club has taken the bragging rights, winning a 2021 semi-final in their Stade Marcel-Deflandre backyard and, of course, succeeding in last year’s final at the Velodrome. Now comes part three in the sequel – a renewal in Dublin that very much alters the dynamics that existed in the rivals’ previous rendezvous.
“Generally, they are one of the best sides in Europe and fortunately, we have been able to have the privilege of playing in the finals the last couple of years. You definitely want to play against the best and Leinster are definitely one of the best, so it is going to be a great occasion.
“The game is made up of moments and if you are able to take advantage or win more of the moments than your opposition, you are likely to put your best foot forward and win. Potentially we maybe just won one more moment,” he reckoned regarding La Rochelle’s 2-0 lead in the head-to-head.
“These games are so tight, the teams are so good and we were fortunate to get over the line the last couple of times, but Leinster are in extremely great form at the moment. They have ripped through the competition, and we are under no illusions that we are coming up against a quality side.
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“No match is ever the same and that is the beauty about rugby – how you adapt and try and win those big moments. There is definitely a temperament you have to have to play well in finals. Often it is not the team that has more talent, it is the team that has the best temperament and is able to stay calm and play the best rugby.
“We are fortunate to be able to play in a couple of finals and gain some experience but also when you turn around and look at Leinster they are chock-full of quality international players and they have just come off the Grand Slam in the Six Nations (with Ireland), so both teams have got a bit of experience and Leinster will be in a good place with all the cattle they have over there.”
The colour and the dynamism of the La Rochelle fans have become a heart-gladdening aspect of Champions Cup rugby in the post-pandemic era and Kerr-Barlow can’t wait to see the jamboree go on tour next week to Ireland after the inspiring backing they received for their semi-final win over Exeter. “The support was enormous and why I think we have got the best fans in Europe – that is obviously going to be disputed by other players and clubs, but it was an enormous occasion.
“We were happy to win that game, but we let ourselves down in areas allowing tries, we probably should have been better in a few moments. As you well know, big games are made up of moments. We were very happy to be in the final again against what is an extremely good Leinster side. I don’t know how much support we are going to have but I’m sure what support we do have, they will be singing their hearts out.”
Kerr-Barlow’s ‘let ourselves down’ remark very much piqued the interest. The seven-try La Rochelle were always going to be winners that boiling Bordeaux day, blitzing Exeter for a 26-7 half-time lead before getting the job finished with a 47-28 scoreline. So why the dissatisfaction?
Your @TISSOT Try of the Round Semi-final winner…
A tasty team try from @staderochelais, finished by Tawera Kerr-Barlow ?#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/ToHdWbJPP2
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 3, 2023
“I thought we could have shown better application, been a bit more ruthless, especially towards the end of the match, but you can’t take away from Exeter, they are a quality team with quality players, and they were able to take advantages of a couple of situations there.”
That La Rochelle were upset by a couple of late consolation scores says much about their impeccably high standards, a tone set by O’Gara, the Irishman who initially joined under Jono Gibbes in 2019 before taking over the whole shooting match two seasons later – a position he is now contracted to until 2027. Being an ex-All Black with a penchant for excellence himself, Kerr-Barlow is very much on the same wavelength as his boss.
“Look, firstly, playing under Ronan is a privilege. He is a great coach, and he seems to be able to get the best out of us in the moments that are most important. He cut his teeth as a club player in the Champions Cup and had great success and we can feel the intensity in all the preparation all the coaches go through – but definitely Ronan enjoys the Champions Cup and as a club, we do as well.”
Does O’Gara’s Munster background feed into the preparations when it’s his old rivals Leinster in the opposite corner? “Look, one of the best things about Ronan is generally he doesn’t try and take the shine away from the team he is coaching.
“He tries to prepare us the best that he can and likewise with all the coaches and if that is sharing a bit of wisdom through his experiences or otherwise how they prepare us, every bit of information is invaluable coming from a guy with his experience.
“There is something really cool playing up in this part of the world that we don’t get to experience back in the southern hemisphere. You have got the best teams from the best competitions. It is an extremely hard competition and we don’t take it for granted being able to play in the final. Everyone works extremely hard and you come up against all these top sides – and any of them can win it on their day. It’s awesome to be able to cut your teeth against teams from all the different countries.”
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It was in Ireland in January 2018 when Kerr-Barlow, who had forged his career with the Super Rugby Chiefs, made his European debut for La Rochelle. That was the club’s maiden Champions Cup season and it showed as they lost at Ulster and then went on to exit in the quarter-finals at Scarlets. Five years later, La Rochelle are remarkably set to play their third Champions Cup final.
“You look at the evolution, there has obviously been a lot of change in the coaching department but ever since La Rochelle in 2016/17 made the semi-final of the Top 14 when I wasn’t there, through the hard work of the front office, the president and co, they have built a structure.
“They had a plan and I’d say the plan now is coming to fruition. We have got the best opportunity to put ourselves in finals and play in the moments we want to play in. It was eight or nine years ago the club were in the second division here in France, so I would say it is a pretty extraordinary pathway to take.
“There definitely has been a lot of hard work and unfortunately, we had to lose a couple of finals to cut our teeth at this stage of the competition. I can’t take any credit for that, that’s the front office but I would say they have done really well.”
Recruitment is something La Rochelle have an enviable knack for doing exceptionally well and one old and one new example encapsulates this. It was 2014 when Fijian Levani Botia took a punt on the-then unfashionable club and he is still there now at the age of 34, creating havoc in the back row following a run of games earlier in the season at midfield.
“He is extremely talented, forwards and backs, and his ability around the contact area on attack and defence has been massive for us and is an important part of our team,” explained Kerr-Barlow before singing the praises of a more recent recruit, Ultan Dillane, who arrived as a lock from Connacht but has since evolved into an indispensable blindside.
"He absolutely destroyed me the second time. I don’t think he even made much of an effort" @staderochelais forward @Ultan_Dillane talks to @heagneyl ??? abt leaving Irish rugby, changing position, his 'pillow' story and more… https://t.co/3pxS2q547m
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 23, 2023
“First and foremost, he is a bloody good bloke. He came over as a lock and he is part-French as well, so he has got a good grasp of the language. He probably took a bit of time changing over into six, which is normal, but he has been massive for us, a massive contributor and an extremely important player as well.
“We play for each other in this team and if every bloke does his job, we give ourselves the best chance to get the desired result and those two fellas have been massive for us so far this season.”
It helps that this disparate band of brothers get on brilliantly away from the pitch, the Will Skelton sauna club their latest craze away from the training ground. “A couple of the boys are visiting the sauna quite frequently,” chuckled Kerr-Barlow.
“I managed to get there last week. He has got an awesome set-up that fella, it’s cool. It’s good to be able to connect outside rugby as well and decompress, but I was very impressed with the set-up that he was running.” The task now is to sweat out a result in the final.
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Gavin Hastings, was playing was he? 🤔Go to comments
Let Moana go and setup Timi Samoa and a Timi Tonga. I guarantee you that the support will be even stronger than that for the Fiji Drua. You only have to remember the support from The respective communities for Mate ma Tonga and Toa Samoa in Rugby League and also the national teams in Rugby Union. Both teams would be able to field teams equal to The Fiji drua or even better.Go to comments