Ronan O’Gara aware of threat posed from ‘resilient’ Sexton

La Rochelle coach says side are stronger than last year and ready to win Champions Cup

It didn't take long. Just three questions into his zoom call with the Irish media prior to next Saturday's Heineken Champions Cup final in Marseille, Ronan O'Gara was reminded that Leinster had a different number "10" from last year's semi-final when beaten by his powerful La Rochelle side.

Looking relaxed in matching back Adidas La Rochelle T-shirt and tracksuit top, O’Gara nodded knowingly and chuckled slightly. He had a feeling he might be asked about the Leinster number “10”.

“Yeah, especially the form he is in. Twelve months ago, Johnny probably wasn’t playing as good as rugby as he is now. So that’s a positive for Leinster. They’ll have a different ‘9’ and a different ‘10’,” he added, which perhaps revealed how he rates Jamison Gibson-Park’s influence this season too.

“And they’ll have a few changes up front as well. But I suppose their DNA stays the same. That’s important when you’re trying to tell the French guys that they’ll be highly organised, highly efficient and fit, and highly skilled. But I suppose we have to take confidence from what happened last year and the key for us will be to try to start well.”

O’Gara himself retired just after turning 36, the same age as Sexton now, so he can appreciate what Sexton is doing all the more.

“First of all he’s a great competitor and he loves rugby. People forget that. Rugby is such a great game so you play it for as long as you can. If you’re good you keep going and he’s outstaying the rest in his position comfortably.

He also believes Lions’ rejection may have “fuelled” Sexton.

“That would have hurt him deeply. So now it’s another example of his excellent resilience and now he’s coming back.

“I think he’s made changes to his game. He’s always been a good passer of the ball but now he’s become a threat again, which he may have put on the back burner. But you saw against Toulouse, he has a very good running game, a good passing game, a good kicking game and he’s very good at seeing the opportunity before other people see it.

“That’s what a lot of great ‘10s’ do and he sees things quicker than other people and he’s able to manipulate his attackers and defenders into space because they’ve got great cohesion amongst them.”

Leo Cullen laughed when hinting he'd take O'Gara's pre-match utterances regarding medical updates with a pinch of salt. Will Skelton's 15-minute cameo off the bench in La Rochelle's home win over Stade Français last Saturday after being ruled out for the rest of the season being a case in point.

You have to be very mentally strong to come back to this stage after what happened last year, even though I'm a huge fan in believing that you learn so much from getting to finals

The indications are that Skelton may be on the bench again against Leinster. “If it keeps going to plan, we’ll see how much we can get out of him at the weekend,” said O’Gara.

Despite ex-All Blacks scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow fracturing two bones in his hand in the semi-final win over Racing a fortnight ago, O’Gara said: “I need to get some hurling advice and try and get one of those micro gloves. So we’ll see what we can do with that. I mean you’ve got to explore every possibility.

“Depending on his pain threshold, depending on his grip of the ball and depending on, well, the legality of it I think is okay. People have played with those hurling gloves in the past. We just have to wait and see with that.”

O'Gara's disappointment was palpable at the possibility of the 37-year-old All Blacks World Cup winner Victor Vito, who is retiring at the end of the season, missing out with an ankle injury.

“He was previewed to play 43 minutes and I was trying to get a line-out at the far side of the pitch so he would get the acclamation of the crowd in his final game in Deflandre, which is important for players who have given so much to the club.

“We had a kick-off reception, he got his foot caught and someone fell on it in an awkward position so he’s sore today. He’s in a moon boot so it’s not ideal obviously. He’s in a massive race against time.”

It's also possible that fullback Brice Dulin will be fit to return but no less than Leinster's vague utterances about Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe, nothing will be sure until Friday's noon team announcements.

O’Gara acknowledged that Leinster are better than last season, particularly in their phased play, and spoke admiringly of the Leinster coaching ticket, but he also believes his side are stronger on losing two landmark finals last season.

“Mentally we are a lot stronger. We’ve worked a lot on that. You have to be very mentally strong to come back to this stage after what happened last year, even though I’m a huge fan in believing that you learn so much from getting to finals.

“I don’t subscribe to the fact that everything is a failure if you don’t get over the line. We learned from that and we’ve an opportunity to test ourselves in a really challenging environment against a classy team this weekend.

“I think we’ve probably timed our run nicely,” added O’Gara, and his side have won eight of their last nine matches after a difficult start to the season.

“The fixtures were brutal, dreadfully difficult but we’ve shown resistance, we’ve come back, we’ve made a plan, boys have dug in for each other, which was epitomised by the performance at the weekend. I think good teams find a way to win and at the minute we are doing that.”