Ronan O’Gara has made La Rochelle ask ‘why not us?’

Defence is the French team’s strongest weapon, and the focus is to defend the ball and not the space

Not the least disconcerting factor for Leinster's prospects in La Rochelle on Sunday is the presence of Jono Gibbes and Ronan O'Gara in the home coaching ticket.

It's not so much that Gibbes will have an acute insight into Leinster's inner circle. After all, he left the province almost seven years ago. Nor even that O'Gara will know Leinster inside out. It's more the indelible stamp they have left over this La Rochelle team.

The New Zealand influence is strong given Gibbes’ entire playing career with Waikato, the Chiefs, the Maori All Blacks and the All Blacks themselves, and O’Gara’s transformative two years with the Crusaders. There’s also the 8-9-10 axis of two-time World Cup winner Victor Vito and their half-back combination of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Ihaia West.

“It’s probably a stretch, but they’re a bit like the Crusaders,” according to the former Munster number eight James Coughlan, now the defence coach and assistant forwards coach at Brive under Jeremy Davidson.


“They’ve got real players, everybody knows their jobs, and it’s all about the gain line for them.”

It’s clearly working too.

La Rochelle sit second in the Top 14, five points behind Toulouse with a game in hand and eight points clear of the chasing pack with five rounds remaining.

Prior to the pandemic the Stade Marcel Deflandre was the only ground in the Top 14 to record 100 per cent capacity attendances for all its home games in each of the 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. The ground had been sold out for 43 consecutive home games dating back to the 37-18 win over Stade Francais in February 2017.

In the dozen games behind closed doors at the Stade Deflandre since the resumption, La Rochelle have won 11 of them. The exception was against Toulouse two months ago, when La Rochelle should have won. They had more of the game and more than enough chances to seal the deal. Leading 11-9 with five minutes remaining, they were undone thanks to a try by Yoann Huget who, sadly, suffered a season-ending, and thus career-ending injury when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in Toulouse’s win over Racing last weekend.

Best defence

La Rochelle have the best defence in the Top 14 and by a distance – their concession of just 25 tries in 21 matches is 10 better than anyone else. In 11 home matches they have leaked just nine tries.

As O’Gara has revealed himself, the primary focus of the La Rochelle defence is to defend the ball, not the space. The focus of their defence is to follow the ball and look to smash the carrier. As well as looking to shoot up off the line very hard and make dominant tackles, they are very aggressive at the breakdown, where they will use two or three players to pile through or counter-ruck more than poach.

Will Skelton and their Fijian centre Levania Botia are very effective at this, but it's something they do across the gainline. The hooker Pierre Bourgarit and Grégory Alldritt are their main dangers over the ball.

Defend the ball. Gibbes said as much this week as well.

“What’s changed here is I think Ronan has done a really awesome job with the defence. Obviously that’s his first sort of area of expertise and that’s grown now into the attack side as well.

“La Rochelle, traditionally, weren’t a really defensive heavy team. The DNA of the club was to play with the ball and move the ball from all over the park, play an attractive style of rugby. When La Rochelle didn’t have the ball it was kind of to minimise the damage.

“That’s not a negative, that’s just how the club had been in their approach for a long time, and I think Ronan coming in and demystifying and taking something that’s quite complicated and making it simple and use the ball. I think defence has become a really strong weapon of this team, and that’s a massive credit to him and what he’s done.

“Coupled with that I think there’s been a transition off the field and what kind of players we value, what kind of people we value, and over the course of two and a half we moved some players on and brought some players in. And that’s changed the expectations and the ambitions, and bringing that positive mindset of ‘why not us’?”

Vito concurs that O’Gara’s influence is also mental as well as technical or tactical.

“With Ronan he is just an ultimate competitor. I am sure he was like that obviously when he played with the Irish team, but like he just wants to win so bad. And I think it is really infectious, and it doesn’t come off too daunting because he is actually a nice guy to talk to.

“He is very worried about the guys and their families, how they are all going. He is quite approachable. So when you mix that in with a real desire to win, he has really got an attention to detail around certain things as well. So, look, I think he has really just asked the question ‘why not us?’ a lot ever since he got here.

“A lot of the boys, we believe we are a great team. We believe we can do great things, but some of the details he has brought in along with Jono as well, we are now looking at a semi-final with Leinster, one of the teams I have been looking at from afar and wondering what was their secret.

“Now all of sudden we are having a game with them. Obviously the proof is in the pudding, we still have to play them, and still try to beat them but [it’s] just an honour to be receiving them at the same time.”

Winning run

This semi-final finds La Rochelle on a four-game winning run, backing up their 26-11 win away to Bordeaux with those Champions Cup knock-out wins away to Gloucester (27-16) and at home to Sale (45-21) with a win at home to Lyon a fortnight ago.

It’s not often that Sale, with their mixture of South African muscle and northern English grit, are out-muscled, and it was a similar story against Lyon. La Rochelle idled in the finishing straight when 33-6 up going into the last quarter, which cost them a bonus point, but for that first hour they smashed Lyon at the breakdown. Lyon just couldn’t generate any go-forward ball because they weren’t physical enough at the breakdown.

As has been fairly well documented, La Rochelle’s defensive lineout is straight out of the Gibbes manual, with Uini Atonio and Skelton at the front to smash any opposition mauls, and their jumpers contest the middle or tail, where Alldritt or Vito are usually thrown up in the air.

This is why Toner has been selected, allowing Leinster to back their lineout whether hitting him or Ruddock, who has become more of a target, or Conan.

Leinster’s maul has been a potent weapon this season, whether scoring directly from it or as a result of going to the corner. But against such a strong maul defence, they will need to be inventive. Gloucester tried to set up mauls around the front and back, but were smashed on landing either way.

Hence, from further out, Leinster could opt for more shortened lineouts and look to move the ball out quickly, or set up fake mauls and have Kelleher peeling off or launching Henhsaw up the middle while also having the option of going out the back to Ross Byrne and Garry Ringrose.

Cotton wool

Admittedly you would imagine O’Gara will have La Rochelle well versed in all of this, but if Leinster have a few unused plays up their sleeve, this would be the game to unveil them. Keeping the bulk of their first-choice team in cotton wool last weekend was probably to fine tune some of those plays in training. Their defence off a lineout usually has Bourgarit shooting up on the opposition out-half from the tail.

As for La Rochelle’s attack, as Toner noted during the week, one of their go-to ploys is a four or five-man lineouts, with the 24-stone lock Skelton in midfield to truck the ball up. From the recycle their Fijian inside centre Botia is often the next carrier.

If each of those two get over the gain line, La Rochelle may keep going the same way. If not they often came back short side, where they use Brice Dulin’s cultured left foot to find space in behind, but they will lie deep, also giving themselves the option of keeping the ball in hand to go to the edges.

From there they start again, either through the big men trucking it up or Kerr-Barlow will pass between the two pods of three to West.

Kerr-Barlow also looks to snipe himself (he has had 22 carries for 120m in their three Champions Cup games to date) and offload.

They can be smart too using, say, Vito as a jumper without a lifter, and as they showed with two tries directly off lineouts in the second-half against Sale, they have some strike plays too, as Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Lleyds cleverly brought in off their flanks to open up the defence.

Attacking shape

O'Gara's time in the Crusaders can also be seen in their phased attacking shape. La Rochelle usually have a three-man pod playing off Kerr-Barlow, and two men off West, with a centre such as Geoffrey Dopumayrou as another option out the back and a back-rower such as Gourdon running a hard line, with another back-rower, or Bourgarit, on the edge.

As they also showed against Sale, when scoring two tries off West’s crosskicks, they have a clever kicking game, and often employ their backrowers, Vito and Alldritt, on the edges.

Vito admits O’Gara’s time with the Crusaders has fed into his coaching.

“Yeah, I would say so. I wouldn’t ask too much about the detail that the Crusaders used just because I am a Hurricanesman but some of the clips he shows us and the detail he brought about how we attack with our forwards and the sort of lines we are trying to connect with our runners and that kind of thing, a lot of that is Crusaders influenced.

“But then culturally as well, just being able to connect with the guys and have a laugh, that’s maybe something that he has probably learned in New Zealand more so.

“We are a lot more jovial maybe than his generation was when he was playing so he definitely loosened up a bit going to New Zealand and then coming to us because they love to have a laugh over here. He has tightened the screws as well which is why we have been able to find ourselves in a semi-final.”

This may be an oddity of a season, but they are not here by accident.