Top 14 club-by-club 2020/21 season preview: La Rochelle
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…
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.
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.
“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)
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.
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.
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.
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