Top 14 semi-final preview: La Rochelle v Racing 92, Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille, 8.45pm (7.45pm Irish) – Live on Premier Sports 1
Friday night's Top 14 semi-final in Lille promises to be quite a game, and quite a Munster reunion, as Ronan O'Gara pits his La Rochelle side against Racing 92, where his friend of well-on 25 years, Mike Prendergast, is backs coach.
La Rochelle also have Darren Sweetnam on the bench, where he can cast a glance toward Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan, who will be joining O'Gara's coaching staff next season on retiring, among the Racing replacements.
O’Gara and Prendergast will this week have flashed their minds back to the Munster Schools Senior Cup final of 1995, when the former’s PBC beat the latter’s Crescent College.
Prendergast played 50 times for Munster, mostly with O’Gara as his halfback partner, either side of spells with Bourgoin and Gloucester before both embarked upon a coaching career in France in 2013, Prendergast at Grenoble, O’Gara at Racing.
After Prendergast's spells with Grenoble, Oyonnax and Stade Francais, it was O'Gara who recommended him to Racing's owner Jacky Lorenzetti and current head coach Laurent Travers.
After Racing’s defeat by Grenoble in 2017, O’Gara described Prendergast as the best backs coach in the Top 14. Since O’Gara returned to France two years ago, they have crossed swords four times, sharing two home wins apiece, while their bond grew even stronger through during the pandemic.
“The rugby world is very small,” Prendergast told The Irish Times on Thursday after his squad’s run out in the match stadium. His task is to break down the best defence in the Top 14, one masterminded by O’Gara.
“That’s the exciting part of it, trying to break down their rush defence,” says Prendergast. “What they do is put your skills under pressure. They get off the line, get up on the outside and just give you no time on the ball.”
Their friendship will be set aside for 80 minutes, but will survive.
“We’d speak a lot, a couple of times every week and have become quite close,” says Prendergast.
“He was and still is a precious friend for me in France,” O’Gara said this week. “We had to understand the mentality here, to get feedback on our experience. We talk about rugby all the time, we send each other messages, photos, videos, even if we don’t always agree.
“Mike is someone who has a lot of humility, he wants to progress, he is a hard worker. And I don’t just say that because he’s my friend, I really think so. It’s true that we have come even closer since the pandemic. We spend time on the phone, we also try to watch Irish matches which we then analyse.”
Racing, who have won the Bouclier de Brennus six times, are seeking to reach their 13th final and first since beating Toulon in the Camp Nou in 2016, when Dan Carter played and O'Gara was on their coaching staff. La Rochelle, by comparison, are trying to reach their first final.
They each won 17 and lost nine in the regular season, each also registering six offensive and four defensive bonus points. Courtesy of the 78th-minute penalty by reserve halfback Jules Le Bail at Clermont in the last round, La Rochelle edged Racing out of second place on points difference.
This meant Racing had to face Parisian neighbours Stade Francais in le barrage, and after their European exertions, O'Gara admitted "having a weekend off was huge". However, in addition to Levani Botia's suspension, Geoffrey Doumayrou and influential hooker Pierre Bourgarit are injured.
La Rochelle have also lost four of their last six matches, partly attributed to squad rotation, whereas Racing have won five in a row. They had last week's game done and dusted when Zebo, a temporary replacement for Kurtley Beale, scored their fourth try for a 28-0 interval lead in a 35-21 victory.
Eddy Ben Arous, number eight Yoan Tonga and winger Donovan Taofifenua have joined Camille Chat on Racing's injury list. Although La Rochelle have the more proven defence and maul, Racing have the more potent backline and in Bernard Le Roux and Dominic Bird might have the power to cope with Will Skelton and Romian Sazy in the secondrow.
Furthermore, the Stade Pierre Mauroy, home to the surprise Ligue 1 champions, is enclosed (5,000 fans will be inside and a decision whether or not to close the roof will be made on Friday morning) and has a hybrid grass surface, akin to Racing’s 4G surface at La Défense Arena.
LA ROCHELLE: B Dulin; D Leyds, R Rhule, J Favre, V Retière; I West, T Kerr-Barlow; R Wardi, F Bosch, U Atonio; R Sazy (capt), W Skelton; W Liebenberg, K Gourdon, G Alldritt.
Replacements: S Lagrange, D Priso, T Lavault, V Vito, J Le Bail, J Plisson, D Sweetnam, A Joly.
RACING 92: K Beale; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, G Fickou, L Dupichot; F Russell, M Machenaud (capt); H Kolingar, T Baubigny, C Gomes Sa; B Le Roux, D Bird; B Palu, I Diallo, A Claassen.
Replacements: K Le Guen, G Gogichashvili, D Ryan, W Lauret, T Iribaren, F Trinh-Duc, S Zebo, G Colombe.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal.
Forecast: Racing to win.