Ronan O’Gara: ‘Damn right I’m proud but there’s no point in being second best’
La Rochelle coach admits Levani Botia’s first-half red card was key in loss to Toulouse
Ronan O’Gara consoles Geoffrey Doumayrou after La Rochelle’s loss to Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup final at Twickenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Ronan O’Gara had to suffer two defeats in finals with Munster before they reached their Holy Grail and for the second time as an assistant coach, after losing with Racing against Saracens in 2016, he was left to reflect with both regrets and pride in his players after another one that got away.
“It’s tough but my gut reaction says that I don’t think we were very accurate, I don’t think we were very disciplined,” he said after the 22-17 defeat to Toulouse at Twickenham. “We made it made it look tight maybe at the end, a few contentious decisions maybe, but we’ve got to park that. We weren’t good enough on the day.
“I thought we were a bit hesitant in the first 40 and missed a few kicks at goal. We didn’t take our opportunities and they were hanging on.”
The game hinged on the 28th-minute red card brandished to their Fijian centre Levani Botia, who had been a major doubt for the game with the ankle ligament injury he suffered in the semi-final win over Leinster three years ago.
“Even though you’d admire what we did with 14 men, I ask myself [Levani] Botia, the poor guy who got sent off, he hadn’t trained and [his] timing was just off a little bit, so that preys on my mind big time.”
O’Gara said there was “no doubt” that the red card changed the game. While restricting Toulouse to one try was a worthy effort, O’Gara also admitted: “We needed to be better. As we know it’s a little bit easier if we got dry conditions and it’s a bit of learning curve, but it’s all about winning and when you look at that, there was a five-point difference with 15 against 14. It’s disappointing.”
While O’Gara, Jono Gibbes and the La Rochelle think tank adapted well to their numerical disadvantage, O’Gara told Virgin Media: “It’s hard when you’re living every moment and you’re trying to stay ahead of the game tactically.
“There were a few moments. We could have gone 15-9, that plus three would have been a big boost with 14,” he said in reference to Ihaia West’s hooked penalty at the start of the second half.
“There were a load of other little things. It’s not as if we didn’t threaten so damn right I’m proud of them, of course I am. We’ve come a long way, but there’s no point in being second best.”
With O’Gara moving up to head of the professional team when Gibbes swaps over to Clermont next season, the upwardly mobile club on the Atlantic coast will be even more determined to conquer Europe next season.
O’Gara lamented Romain Ntamack not being penalised for holding on in the game’s last play after prematurely looking to kick the ball dead five seconds before the 80-minute mark.
“It’s still an action part of the game. If he’s holding on, on the ground, it’s a penalty. Maybe you can kick to touch and normally you score from that, but it’s not sour grapes. We weren’t accurate enough in the first 40, I take my medicine but with the dark clouds there’s a lot of promise.”
For all that, O’Gara was “very proud” of his team’s performance.
“As I said before the game, there’s tomorrow. We’re bitterly disappointed, you get a shot for 80 minutes, we weren’t good enough but I’ll sleep tonight knowing the boys emptied the tank for us.”
With Toulouse and La Rochelle occupying the top two places it’s not implausible that they will meet again in the final of the French Championship.
“We’ve got a great Top 14 campaign but Europe is special, there’s no doubt about it. I love the competition, even today it was so fantastic to be a part of it, but you wanted to have that killer instinct.
“But there were a lot of positives. With 14 men it was good, but it wasn’t good enough to win. It’s just a bit sad now.”
Antoine Dupont lifted the trophy as the stand-in captain for the suspended Julian Marchand, who could also derive some further compensation from his younger brother Guillaume being a second-half replacement.
The brilliant Dupont, who defended magnificently and increasingly brought his influence to bear, was also named the European player of the season and hence received the Anthony Foley Memorial Trophy.
“It’s been a tough year with all the Covid restrictions but since the beginning of the season it’s been a major target to win something and we did it so I’m really pleased.”