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

(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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J
Jon 2 hours ago
British & Irish Lions free agent open to Super Rugby switch

There are a couple of teams who could use a stop gap experienced head. Blues - I’m not sure the Blues have signed a replacement for Caleb Tangitau (if he hasn’t been let go to make room for Barrett) yet, or whether Reiko is going on sabbatical and/or will remain in the squad. With exciting young French player Xavi Taele looking destined for higher honors in black, talented breakthrough rookie Cory Evan’s, and a couple of utilities, in AJ Lam and Bryce Heem(even Clarke?), all trying to learn the midfield trade, Williams could be a great aid. The Blues signed key English center Joe Marchant before he was raised to that level, and were possibly in the hunt to bring back the dependable Tele’a from the Highlanders. Possible the main squeeze which would put to bed any signing here would be the battle at 10 with Beauden’s return, and the forcing of Plummer back into the midfield. Hurricanes - Jordie Barrett is off to Leinster for a sabbatical next year but the more likely signing would be Billy’s brother back in the team. The Hurricanes are light on the outside with the loss of Salesi Rayasi to the Top 14 and if no quality is found to back up Kini Naholo, the midfield of Sullivan or Proctors could find themselves on the wing and space for a leader to show the Hurricanes three All Black midfield hopefuls (Higgins, Proctor, Umaga-Jensen) how its done. Highlanders - Rotation is high as usual at the Highlanders and versatility remains a strength with a lot of the squad. With compatriot Rhys Patchell signing a move to the JRLO, the passing of outside back Connor Garden-Bachop, and confirmed departure of Argentine wing Martin Bogado, the versatility of many of the young backups in the squad could see a veteran 12 like Williams being a strong partner for the robust Tele’a. With hope that the other Umaga-Jensen brother can force him out of the starting lineup, and shifting the sides general Sam Gilbert back into 10, the off-contract midfielder might seen as the perfect option for a squad still looking to fill one back spot.

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