Ronan O’Gara adding a layer of red to La Rochelle players’ mentality

La Rochelle head coach and assistant Donnacha Ryan have introduced their team to the rugby culture of Munster in Cork

In La Rochelle, where he lives, Ile de Ré, has become Ile de Rog. This week Cork has become Rog Town, Ronan O’Gara’s staging post for the Saturday assault on Leinster in Aviva Stadium. The French side didn’t go home after their stint in South Africa, instead taking a commercial flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg and on to Paris. From there it was straight to Ireland.

The team is lapping up what it is like to be Munster and where their coaches O’Gara and Donnacha Ryan launched their own raids into Dublin years ago, with all the passion and enmity that goes with provincial rivalry.

“We met the mayor last night,” says Ryan. “We went out for a meal with the staff, it was great. The mayor just happened to be with the French ambassador in the restaurant. He came up and said hello and informed all the boys that Rog was given the ‘Freeman of Cork’ and what a big accolade it is. Just to give the context to the staff.

“Erin’s Own were playing last night. I was planning on bringing a few lads but unfortunately, we had to start late yesterday because the lads were still tired from the trip. We had to push everything back. We went out with the staff to a place with Irish music, it was fantastic. Some of the guys are going to dig a few holes on the golf course today and maybe go around town and meet up with a few of the Munster boys they played against.”


O’Gara is infusing his French team with a different kind of zeal. He’s adding a layer of red to his players’ mentality, painting a picture of what rugby means to Munster and for a French team facing an Irish side in a European quarter-final. He’s loading them with more local goodwill than they could have imagined.

Prepping in Cork is about the players knowing about their coaches and O’Gara’s exalted position in the community. He makes it his business to know all his players’ backgrounds. This week they are learning something of him, creating bonds and experiences, they hope this might count for something in the heat of a Champions Cup knock-out match.

“Yeah, yeah. Jeez, the first thing when we came into the airport, it was incredible,” says Ryan. “When we were going through security, the lads didn’t have to hand their passports into the two lads at the desk. The French boys were kinda shocked by that level of familiarity.

“We get a lot of Irish people that come over to our games and the boys are very receptive to that. They really appreciate that. That’s what it’s all about. We got to train in Temple Hill yesterday. There were a lot of old coaches up there. Donal Lenihan was up there, Brian Hickey and the rest.

“So, obviously we get to share a few stories with them and introduce them to the players and staff from La Rochelle. It does give a bit of colour to the person – who you are and where you’ve been brought up and played.”

Still, the craic in Cork and golf around Fota Island’s championship course is carefully measured.

“We have to draw a bit of a line,” cautions Ryan knowing cold steel must replace bonhomie and Munster fables otherwise the coup that is winning over hearts and minds will be all for nothing.

While La Rochelle lost to Leinster in December, they have had the upper hand in previous seasons. It won’t be beyond them to position themselves as underdogs again. Ryan also has the experience of being coached by Leinster’s double-World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber, when he and Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus were in Munster.

There are not many secrets to Leinster’s play. How to counter it is the challenge facing La Rochelle.

“We played Leinster back in Deflandre earlier in the season and you could see there was a big defensive appetite there to get off the line and put pressure on,” says Ryan. “That’s pretty much the South African model and Jacques mentioned before he had a 16-week plan to implement into the Leinster defensive system.

“Look, I had the pleasure of being coached by Jacques in Munster, and Rassie, so very smart guys, they know what they’re about and it’s certainly the one clear thing you can see, that their defensive line speed is very good and at the same time their breakdown work in defence is very good too. So, it’s something we have to make sure we put a bit of focus on this week.”

Everyone is looking for percentages. But Ryan dismisses claims La Rochelle are psychologically fuelling up on the local affections and admiration that coalesce around the former Irish outhalf. Allowing the French players understand what winning means to their coach, he says, is less psych training than team bonding.

“Ah no. To be honest … the boys, they love seeing Rog in his home environment,” he says. “The boys have been made to feel welcome here and looking for any stories that are going round, so they can just knock a bit of craic out of us. We’ve had a lot of people offering any bit of help we may need, you know, ‘if there’s anything you need, let us know’. That’s what rugby is all about.”

Canny O’Gara? Or all mighty craic?