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Top 14 club-by-club 2020/21 season preview: La Rochelle

By James Harrington
(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Under Jono Gibbes and Ronan O Gara, La Rochelle have New Zealand-style pretensions. It’s a terrific dream, but it proved difficult to get hold of last season. Things could be a little different this time around, however…

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Key signing

Giant lock Will Skelton quickly shut up talk about a return to Oz in the aftermath of the Saracens’ salary cap scandal by signing a two-year deal with the French outfit. Dillyn Leyds and Brice Dulin will also add some spark in the backline.

Key departure

There’s two. The elusive Vincent Rattez will rejoin former coach Xavier Garbajosa at Montpellier next season while want-away lock Thomas Jolmes eventually got what he wanted to bring to an end a sorry period at Marcel Deflandre.

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Former Scotland international Alex Grove guests on The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

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Former Scotland international Alex Grove guests on The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

They say

“We have a lot of young players in the professional squad, but that is what we want. It is our philosophy. I dream that our successors will one day say that we have left the club better than we found it”

– Coach Ronan O’Gara (La Nouvelle Republique)

We say

La Rochelle were fifth in the Top 14 when coronavirus cut short the 2019/20 Top 14 season after 17 rounds of 26. You should not really be able to argue with a league position like that – in a normal, complete season, it would ensure a play-off place, Champions Cup rugby and happy days. But coaches Gibbes and O’Gara would probably be among the first to admit they were fortunate to be there.

It was an oddly incoherent season for the Rochelais. To resort to the cliche: when they were good, they were very, very good. When they were bad – and they could be very, very bad – they were horrid. Compare and contrast their 41-17 win over Brive with their 49-0 loss at Racing.

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La Rochelle lock mystery

Off the pitch, too, there were problems. Jolmes is an international standard lock who was under contract at La Rochelle until 2022, but he only started twice and his absence from matchday squad after matchday squad was notable. It was clear something was very amiss. What exactly went wrong remains shrouded in club-player secrecy.

We do know that, in February, soon after he’d been told to take a holiday and that La Rochelle would not stand in his way if he found another club, he signed for Toulon, where he reunites with former boss Patrice Collazo.

Super Rugby-style

Part of the problem was the free-flowing Super Rugby-style gameplan Gibbes and O’Gara have been trying to implant. It was more miss than hit in 2019/20, but there were glimpses to get – all too briefly – excited about.

That was the work-on Gibbes and O’Gara will have been drilling like crazy in the pre-season. If they have got it working then La Rochelle have a thriller in store. Just beware the possibility of implosion.

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Arrivals

Will Skelton, Jules Le Bail, Raymond Rhule, Pierre Boudehent, Brice Dulin, Dillyn Leyds

Departures

Sila Puafisi, Mike Corbel, Jean-Charles Orioli, Jone Qovu, Thomas Jolmes, Alexi Bales, Brock James, Brieuc Plessis-Couillaud, Marc Andreu, Eliott Roudil, Valentin Tirefort, Kini Murimurivalu, Vincent Rattez

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finn 5 hours ago
Why the world needs a reverse Lions tour

I think there’s a lot of reasons this wouldn’t work, but if we’re just proposing fun things how about a “World Series” held the june/july following a world cup. The teams competing each four years would be: the current world champions The Pacific Islands The British & Irish Lions The World XV Barbarians FC to ensure all teams are fairly evenly matched, the current world champions would name their squad first; then The Pacific Islands would name next, and would be able to select any pacific qualified players not selected by the world champions, including players already “captured” by non-pacific nations who would otherwise have been eligible for selection (eg. Bundee Aki); the Lions would select next; and then The World XV and Barbarians FC would be left to fight over anyone not selected. Some people will point out that 5 teams is too many for a mid-year round robin, particularly as it would be nice to have a final as well; and they would be right! But because we’re just having fun here we’re going to innovate an entirely new format for rugby, where the round robin is played in one stadium over the course of one day, with each game lasting just 40 minutes with no half time or change of ends. The round robin decides the seedings for the knockouts, which are contested by all 5 teams in one stadium over the course of one day, according to the following schedule: Knockout Round 1: seed 5 v seed 4 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Quarter Final: winner of Round 1 v seed 3 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Semi Final: winner of Quarter Final v seed 2 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Final: winner of Semi Final v seed 1 (played as a standard 80 minute rugby match) for the round robin, teams would name a 15 man starting lineup and a 16 man bench. Substitutions during games can only be made for injuries, but any number of substitutions can be made between games. The same rules apply for the finals, except that we return to having a regular 8 man bench, and would allow substitutions as normal during the 80 minute final.

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