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The 'belt the s*** out of you' reason keeping La Rochelle honest

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images)

There are numerous great rugby raconteurs… and then there is Ronan O’Gara, a ringmaster who habitually speaks his mind, beautiful or otherwise. We had the otherwise post-game in Dublin, the Corkman doubling down on the alleged antics of Leinster skipper James Ryan at the coin toss, “bizarre action” he decided to call out rather than sweep under the carpet.

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He didn’t leave the suggestion of feeling belittled there either, adding his own twist to the narrative by bemoaning how the organisers of the showpiece European final couldn’t source a room within the Aviva Stadium where players and their families could hang out post-game.

Now, Lansdowne RFC wasn’t a million miles away. A few stone throws would quickly get you to the entrance located by the Aviva Stadium back pitch. But O’Gara, given where he was from, knew the lie of the land. That the Lansdowne clubhouse, as nice and comfy as it is (and it genuinely is as RugbyPass was recently there for a grassroots cup final), simply isn’t officially a part of the Aviva Stadium and he wasn’t going to stay schtum.

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Not when he had his convalescing mother up from Cork for the game and rather than catch up some more upstairs after initially meeting post-trophy presentation on the Aviva Stadium pitch, they would have to rendezvous off-site.

Enough, though, about the non-match antics. What about the spectacular contest for the ages that had unfolded? La Rochelle had incredibly showed why they were champions by successfully reeling in a whopping 17-point margin and they then defended for their lives in a gripping late, late stand with Leinster repeatedly bashing their line until they overstepped the mark with the red-carded Michael Ala’alatoa incident.

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Finals footy, eh? The French club had learned the hard way losing out in both cup and league deciders to the double-winning Toulouse in 2021. “There are tiny margins: This bus goes home happy, their bus goes home devastated. It’s brutal in that regard,” quipped O’Gara, talking in the same breath about legacy building at La Rochelle while also looking ahead to the coming weeks when the latest Top 14 title race will be decided.

“What is important is we did learn losing a Top 14 final, we did learn getting beaten in Twickenham by Toulouse, but you nearly have to be ruthless in your head as the coach to kind of go, ‘Stop!’ Finals footy is different. You need to understand what happens during the season isn’t good enough or won’t be good enough in a semi-final or final.

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“Considering what we have done with this team today, it is incredibly positive. Imagine their belief after that, it should be sky high but one thing that will bring you down to earth will be the Top 14 when we come up against the same size men and they belt the s*** out of you, so that will test us. But we started well, we have got a jump on other teams, we have two out of two in the bag (in the Champions Cup). It’s fantastic and the staff and the boys deserve huge, huge credit.”

It will be 4pm local French time on Sunday when the players and staff go on parade at the port of La Rochelle, a gathering that is sure to witness another outpouring of magical jubilation mirroring last year’s return to the city after they had pipped Leinster to the prize in Marseille.

That’s twice on the bounce in finals that O’Gara’s team has gotten the better of what is essentially the guts of the Grand Slam-winning Ireland at club level. It played into their preparations, how La Rochelle’s collection of individual talent from around the world shouldn’t be daunted by facing a Test team playing at home as a club side in a cup final.

“We built our week on that, for the players to understand that,” revealed O’Gara about the psyche coming into the 2023 decider. “They can’t play a World Cup because of their nationalities, but I felt there was a group there that can contest against the best teams in the world with Greg (Alldritt), we have the best seven in (Levani) Botia, (Will) Skelton at five, (Uini) Atonio at three, (Tawera) Kerr-Barlow at nine, (Antoine) Hastoy at ten, the French 12 (Jonathan Danty), an Australian/Samoan brilliant 13 (UJ Seuteni), two South African wingers (Ramond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds) and Brice Dulin at 15, brilliant loosehead in Joe Sclavi, Georges Colombe is about to (become great) if he wants to move his ass and does good stuff, Quentin (Lespiaucq) was brilliant, Ultan Dillane had a point to prove and he proved it brilliantly, I am delighted for him. We can’t play a Test game, but we felt we had a Test team.”

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Having played at rarified heights with Munster, Ireland and the Lions as a marquee No10, O’Gara has been on the go now as a coach for a decade, serving his apprenticeship at Racing, the Crusaders and initially at La Rochelle before taking over the whole shooting match two summers ago with the departure of Jono Gibbes. Why is he such a success, winning back-to-back European trophies in his first two seasons? “You have to have fun, you have to enjoy it and once you establish your values, the boys will buy in.”

They sure did and yet the process of getting his team to that EPCR summit played on his mind in the fuzzy aftermath, how all this La Rochelle celebration had been preceded by the brutal side to coaching, selecting a team and having to personally deliver the bad news to the players that didn’t make the cut.

“If you don’t have buy-in from your senior players you’re dead. What they like is consistency of behaviours. People talk about being disciplined but it’s talk. Discipline is an act of preparation; of pictures you give to the referee, and you try and get better every single week. We talk about that, but we also review it.

“You can’t be good at everything. We try and highlight what we want to get better at and then we either get a nod of approval from the boys or else it’s ‘Rog, no, I think you should take it this way’ and we’ll do it a bit like that. It has been good in the fact that we have had a lot of time off. The boys enjoy time off but then they train hard.

“We put a huge emphasis on buying good people. It’s brilliant in the fact that we don’t have any bad eggs in our squad which is a crazy thing to say in French rugby. We do not have any bad eggs and it’s wonderful and they all want to get better. There are so many fellas gutted. This week was horrible because only 23 can play and I have got to front those conversations, not the assistant coaches.

“That takes energy. You’re essentially knifing a guy in the stomach to say, ‘I don’t have a place for you’. So everything he stands for, all his self-belief and his values were just destroyed in a 10-second spurt. That hurts me, that hurts him, but we try to make sure everyone gets a shot and when the boys have got a shot, most of them have taken their chance and they have made the place better.”

They sure have. The story of this La Rochelle comeback for the ages will be a story told for ages. Very, very well played, O’Gara and co.

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2 Comments
N
Nice One Bruvva 394 days ago

Razor’s apprentice at Crusaders. Good man cut from same cloth. 😁

J
Joe 396 days ago

Rog doing his usual and a pity the journo did not fact check him !
A picture take at the coin toss clearly shows James Ryan looking Aldritt squarely in the eye . As for his complain about not being accommodated for an after match reception - he was offered a room in the Aviva but it could only hold 100 guests . Rog chose Lansdowne ( of which I am a member ) because he wanted a venue which could accommodate 300 .

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Turlough 6 hours ago
'Let them keep talking' - Mike Catt claps back over Bok remarks

“You want that – not hatred – but whatever it is that stirs it all up. It’s good.” Agree with this. If you can put a common motivating idea in all your players heads during a game it can produce a real Team perfromance. Erasmus is pretty expert at this. It is quite clear that the comments by Etzebeth, Allende and others were not coincidence and were actioned to create animoisty before the series in order to galvanise the South African mind set. While I understand it, I don’t like it. They result in unnessary vitriol between supporters and for what? I don’t think any of the SA players seriously believe any of these claims and with Ireland ignoring them Erasmus won’t get the escalation he seeks. The vitriol shown by some SA and indeed NZ supporters is extremely weird for NH supporters (OK, maybe England have felt it) but it just feels very odd over a sport. Ireland were more or less sh1t for the first 100 years of their rugby, they have improved significantly in the last 25 to be in a position around now (it may not last) to go into a match with the big guns with a real shot of winning. The reaction to this from some SH supporters has been bizarre with conspiracy theories of ‘Arrogance’ fueling abuse from supporters and even NZ players to Irish crowds during the world cup. I love International rugby and the comraderie between supporters. I genuinely dread and dislike the atmosphere around games with the southern giants. They take this very personally. NH teams: play them, try and beat them, enjoy the craic with their players and supporters and wish them well. SH teams wish them well and they call you arrogant in the press months later. Its just a matter of try and beat them and then good riddance til the next time.

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