Leinster win fills O’Gara with belief La Rochelle can claim first European title

Coach hopeful his underdogs can rise to the challenge again in final against Toulouse

It’s rare for a club to win the Heineken Champions Cup without having cut their teeth and suffered a little pain along the way. Pedigree also counts, almost inordinately so.

In September Exeter became only the second first-time winners of the cup in 11 seasons, but they had earned their stripes in six previous campaigns while also becoming English champions twice.

Were La Rochelle to win next Saturday's final against Toulouse at Twickenham (kick-off 4.45pm) they would be breaking the mould. Les maritimes on the Atlantic coast have never won a French or European title in their 123-year history. This is only their third foray into the Champions Cup, having reached the quarters in their debut campaign three seasons ago.

But overcoming Leinster in the semi-final gives Ronan O’Gara belief that they can repeat the feat against more European royalty in the final.


"Yeah, it does of course and that makes it easier for me, what you said there, because I don't see any reason why we aren't there [in the final]. Me and Jono Gibbes, you've got a good staff, you've got Bourgarit, Skelton, Gourdon, Vito, Alldritt, Kerr-Barlow, West, Botia, Doumayrou, Dulin, Rhule, Leyds – there are threats all over the pitch."


Listing all those gamebreakers, O’Gara said: “For me, there’s a problem if you’re not in a Champions Cup final. Yeah, you’ve got to try and mix their forces together and get them playing for each other but that’s easy.

“I’m very proud of what this club has done and the opportunity it’s given me but at the same time, there’s a game to play and you know I’m in it to win. I’m not in it to partake.”

Gibbes and O’Gara, who won five Heineken Cups between them with Munster and Leinster as a player and an assistant coach, will assuredly devise a good game plan. Nor will they leave it loose and open to interpretation by the players.

In rugby, it's always about the guys who are two seconds ahead with their brain speed. They're the guys for me who always shine through

"It's one of the learnings I've established. No matter how good the players are, they need things tied up, they need direction and they need someone to calculate their rhythm," said O'Gara from the Stade Marcel Deflandre yesterday.

"In that regard, you learn from as good a coach as Joe Schmidt – and it's only lately – that you've got to have an eye to pick weaknesses in the opposition and I thought we did that well against Leinster and that was maybe because we had three weeks to go at them, you could pick out potential opportunities.

“But with that, you need your boys to execute and pull the trigger, and they did that. We weren’t perfect, far from it, but you’ll never be perfect. But that’s okay too.

“You’ve got to give them a clear direction, most definitely, but within the direction they’ve got to trust their instincts. You can’t go, ‘I want black here, I want white here’. In rugby, it’s always about the guys who are two seconds ahead with their brain speed. They’re the guys for me who always shine through.

“So you’re trying to create scenarios where you’re the number ‘10’ and you’re going, ‘Yeah, I’d really like to play that play’.”

A prime example of a player trusting their instincts in La Rochelle’s semi-final victory was Ihaia West landing that relative rarity nowadays, a drop goal, to trim Leinster’s lead to 7-6.

The players talk of O’Gara’s straightness and honesty in his relationships with them.

For example, he admitted: “The boys here would know how I failed in my first Champions Cup final when I was really, really poor.”

Creating trust, he believes, makes for a deeper coach-player bond. “I like to create a collaborative atmosphere where you have to respect what your ball players want.”

Hence, it would be easy to attribute West’s drop goal to the influence of O’Gara, who kicked 42 of them for province and country in his illustrious career.

‘Kill momentum’

“That’s 100 per cent nothing to do with me,” he confessed. “I’d be an absolute bullsh***er if I said it was me. No, I don’t how many drop goals Ihaia has ever kicked in his life but I’d say it’s less than five.”

Indeed, that was West’s one and only drop goal in 68 games for La Rochelle and only his third in 185 club or provincial games.

“We had a yellow card too. For me, that’s brilliant game management. That’s what stepping up to the plate looks like in real terms, 7-3 down, not much on, 30 metres out, take a drop goal, 7-6, kill the clock, kill their momentum, bring us back into the game. But that’s 100 per cent Ihaia.”

For all O’Gara’s KBA (Keep Ball Alive) mantra, La Rochelle’s highly-varied kicking game is a key component of their weaponry, as is the “attack the ball” defensive system devised by O’Gara which successfully targeted Leinster at the breakdown.

Toulouse are equally proficient at KBA and restricting their offloading game will also be critical.

“There isn’t a team that is more deadly with the ball,” admitted O’Gara of Toulouse. “So we’ve got to control the ball. They are incredibly good at keeping the ball and doing fantastic things with it, but also they have Kolbe and Dupont – two of the guys with the biggest X-factor in world rugby. All of a sudden there’s no danger and the next second you’re under your posts.

“There’s very few teams in the world, even at Test level, that have Dupont and Kolbe in the same team. That’s what Toulouse have. They are deadly off turnover ball but they’re deadly with the ball, so we’ve got to try and starve them of ball.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times