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FEATURE Ronan O’Gara’s latest Leinster mind game may be his best yet

Ronan O’Gara’s latest Leinster mind game may be his best yet
3 months ago

You can picture it. The skip of the heart. The pursed lips quickly forming into a smile and the deep intake of breath as the refreshing Cork air filled his lungs. “Home, sweet home.”

Yes, on a dreary Monday morning, Ronan O’Gara touched down in his native Cork and had some esteemed company. The former Munster and Ireland great was joined on this trip to the Rebel County by his back-to-back Champions Cup-winning squad.

French sides often like to head away for a ‘stàge’ in the lead-up to big games. Former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman, who coached Grenoble for six years, describes it as an ‘army camp’, used to bring the squad together, hone strategies and focus minds. Those minds will be focused at the 5-star Fota Island Hotel and resort, 20 minutes outside Cork city. The fact O’Gara is able to enact this homecoming stretch says a lot about the clout he has at Stade Rochelais. And this is truly home for O’Gara. Asked ahead of the 2023 Champions Cup final, held at Aviva Stadium, about playing a ‘home final’, O’Gara corrected the journalist. “Dublin is not home. Cork is home.”

There are practicalities behind the much earlier than usual arrival in Ireland – the squad gets travel and close quarters accommodation sorted in advance, so they can have a four-day run of uninterrupted preparations. If La Rochelle are to become the second ever three-in-a-row Champions Cup winners, they must do it the hard way, and do it as road warriors. Cape Town first, Dublin next. If they can knock Leinster over again, the travel team will be busy plotting for the final four, in May.

Ronan O'Gara
Ronan O’Gara will be furiously plotting the downfall of Leinster in their own backyard (Photo by XAVIER LEOTY / AFP) (Photo XAVIER LEOTY/ Getty Images)

Coming out of the Cork Airport arrivals area, with fellow Munster man Donnacha Ryan not far behind, O’Gara spoke of the ‘good emotions’ getting back on a familiar footing. The squad then set off, with Irish lock Ultan Dillane acting as DJ at the front of the team bus – Ihaia West and Will Skelton getting a kick out from ‘Fields of Athenry’.

The big question many rugby fans, across the country, have is – ‘What is ROG up to?’

O’Gara and his team will insist this was all planned way in advance, to minimise disruption. Those that know the man, and those that have followed his career as a player now coach, suspect there is definitely an element of playfulness involved. For others that claim this week-long stay won’t get in Leinster heads, they are mistaken. Simply because he is in their heads already.

Even if he is up to nothing, he is up to something. He is back, and he has planted a flag.

This La Rochelle team, and their players, are well aware they are late starters when it comes to establishing a rugby legacy. Before 2022, in Marseille, they were outsiders and nearly men. Outlasting Leinster in the sweltering Stade Velodrome heat changed that, but O’Gara was soon plotting for the title defence.

There is no team in rugby that O’Gara wants to get one over more than Leinster. It is simply something that is hard-wired in the genes.

“The boys were probably a bit shocked at how much I loved the competition,” he recalled. “This was something new to them. Once we got a bit of momentum, they could see, ‘Now I know what this crazy Irishman is about’!”

“This,” O’Gara added, “is a great starting point for the club.” He has lived by those words, since, even when England came calling.

There is no team in rugby that O’Gara wants to get one over more than Leinster. It is simply something that is hard-wired in the genes. He will forever be Munster and they will always be Leinster. There is scar tissue upon scar tissue, good memories mingled with bad. Being engulfed by Munster fans at Lansdowne Road, in 2006, to Johnny Sexton celebrating in his face, in 2009. Toulouse are the team to knock off their French perch, but a flash of Leinster blue or talk of ‘five stars’ for Leo Cullen and Jacques Nienaber’s men swiftly brings him back.

La Rochelle v Leinster
Leinster trumped La Rochelle in the Pool stages but in knock-out rugby, the loser has no second chances (Photo Harry MurphyGetty Images)

When La Rochelle first became European champions, O’Gara was gracious in his post-match comments about Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and the Leinster coaching staff. He took no pause, however, in outlining where he felt the Irish province could be found wanting – “We knew, with Leinster, the last 20 was where we could get them.” He was proved right.

There would be no basking in the club’s capture of a first major honour. O’Gara was quick to impress that message upon his players. The uproarious scenes at La Rochelle were played back to the team, on a big screen, when they arrived for the first day of 2022/23 pre-season. Dillyn Leyds recalls the squad being told that was the aim – get back to that port, trophy (or trophies) in hand. “We play,” Johan Cruyff once said, “to fight the fear of losing.” La Rochelle would play to fight that fear, and chase that euphoria, all over again. On the team training gear, jerseys and crest at Apivia Parc and Stade Marcel Deflandre, a yellow star was fixed above. This was the start of something – the first step of a hopeful dynastic run.

We’re expecting the best version of Leinster and the best version of them is a formidable task. We know how difficult it is going to be.

Ronan O’Gara

For the 2023 final, O’Gara was not relenting the underdog role, despite being coach of the reigning champions. When presenter Martin Bayfield tried to suggest Leinster could cruise in the United Rugby Championship, before their Champions Cup Final rematch, O’Gara corrected him. When I was fortunate enough to catch up with him, a fortnight on, he paid Jack Crowley his dues for a “beautiful” match-winning drop goal against Leinster in the URC semi-final. He was keen to stress, though, that Leinster were hell-bent on winning the Champions Cup. “Their focus has been on winning Europe and they’ve made their plan that that was the team they were going for [against Munster]. It will be a completely different team, this weekend. We’re expecting the best version of Leinster and the best version of them is a formidable task. We know how difficult it is going to be, but we want to test ourselves against the best.”

Plucky Stade Rochelais – with Botia, Skelton, Atonio, Danty, Alldritt, Leyds and Kerr-Barlow – hoping to do their best against the mightiest of foes. The blue empire. La Rochelle, in fairness to them, were going to Dublin to play at a ground that is virtually a second home to Leinster. The Blues were home and La Rochelle found themselves 17-0 down and almost, in O’Gara’s words, hosed. “It was easy to jump ship today,” he observed after the comeback win, “but they did the opposite. It was a real 23-man effort. Exceptional. I think these guys are world champions.”

Will Skelton
La Rochelle ruined Leinster’s party at last year’s Champions Cup final and there will be no shortage of needle for the rematch (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Ahead of that final, O’Gara latched onto a moment that rankles with Leinster, to this very day – the coin toss. Word filtered out, even before kick-off, that captain Gregory Alldritt was not happy with the behaviour of his opposite number, James Ryan in what is essentially a ceremonial, photo-call moment. It first appeared that Alldritt complained that Ryan would not make eye contact with him, only for the official translator to clarify the lock had made too much eye contact. “We were disrespected,” Alldritt declared. Whatever it was, O’Gara took it and ran.

“I got word of it on the pitch… there was a little bit of that in terms of Leinster being the home team – accommodation for the families, post-match gigs. Leinster are seen as the home team. We’re here in Lansdowne and we can’t get a room in this place [a function room at Aviva Stadium]. We’re seen as the little team but that is about to change.” Two stars above the crest, now, but still clutching grudges.

The little team with the gigantic ambitions (and players) are back in Ireland and will hold two press events ahead of the game – one in Cork, the other after the Aviva Stadium captain’s run. They are already garnering more media attention and pieces by their sheer presence in the country. Leinster put up their two-time World Cup winning coach, Nienaber, and 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year, Josh van der Flier, on Monday. Stacked against ROG, Donnacha Ryan, Ultan Dillane, good emotions and Fields of Athenry on the team bus, they could not win. They may have to deploy Tadhg Furlong or James Lowe to counter-punch.

Time, and results, will tell but this could be O’Gara’s best mind-game yet.

Comments

17 Comments
d
dave 91 days ago

So, how did ROG's MIND GAMES work out then, Pat, eh? I hope they enjoyed de wildlife down in Fota, because it did eff all for their performance, did it?

G
G 94 days ago

Is there anything worse than a Corkonian Eddie Jones with a chip on both shoulders? The little man doesn’t consider Ireland home unlike say Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell. He is not suitable to ever be an Ireland manager. He should stay in the parochial clubs he favours.

L
Lonster Lionel 95 days ago

What I like about ogara is, he loves a fight and he is plain speaking. What I don't like about about him is his lack of respect and thrash talk. Also, he seems ‘outstay his welcome’ and his legacy gets tarnished. I predict the same this weekend (God willing) and that will knock him off his perch.

  • Lonster Lionel

K
Keith 96 days ago

Could you please enlighten me with what sanction world rugby has delivered on the international coach who went on as a water boy and verbally attacked the referee on television. This is particularly relevant given the punishment dished out to the South African coach.
Or are there two different sets of rules for the northern hemisphere and everyone else.

R
Roger 96 days ago

Nah I still back La Rochelle even though they beat my team last weekend. So was not supposed to happen. But having said that Stormers would play Leinster twice if we had beaten La Rochelle.

B
Bull Shark 96 days ago

Great. Now I can’t get the image of ROG’s pursed lips out of my mind.

Rather rambling article that essentially says that La Rochelle are working hard on preparing for their next game.

And that ROG wanted to train in his hometown. No doubt he wants to stay with his mum or something while he’s in town for work.

(Common practice. I often stay with my mum when I travel back to my home town for work. Save the company some bucks too.)

Traveling from Cape Town for their next game in Ireland, I wonder how this is tactically worth writing home about.

Where else and when else were La Rochelle going to get to Ireland? Were they going to stay in Cape Town for a while longer? Or go home to France first? There’s nothing tactically astute here worth 1000 words.

Leinster by 10 points.

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