Ronan O’Gara: ‘Champions Cup comes at the perfect time for us’

La Rochelle boss says Glasgow have nothing to lose as they travel to last year’s finalists

Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle start their Champions Cup campaign  at home to Glasgow. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle start their Champions Cup campaign at home to Glasgow. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

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The reformatted four-game sprint to the knock-out stages of the Heineken Champions Cup seems to be particularly suited to the French sides when set among their 26-game Top14 marathon.

Admittedly, the pool stages were abandoned after just two rounds last season, but even so the French provided seven of the last 16, five of the quarter-finalists, three of the semi-finalists and both finalists, when Toulouse beat La Rochelle at Twickenham.

With Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara at the helm, it was always likely that La Rochelle would have taken a more pro-European attitude to the Champions Cup anyway but having succeeded the former, O’Gara subscribes to the theory that this format suits the French clubs.

“Yes. I think it’s a good thing because, of course, you understand the importance of the Brennus Shield and the history associated with it. For us, the idea of having a Formula 1 style sprint for the Champions Cup is really exciting for the players, because it changes their mindset.

“That’s to say, Sunday, we start with Glasgow and that’s almost knock-out rugby. It’s kill or be killed. We have to keep this frame of mind for the following week against Bath. I think after two weeks, we’ll know a lot, whether we’re dead or alive.

“What’s good for us is that even three out of four victories could either work or not be enough. It is very good for the team that they have four games because the Shield is a marathon, but the Champions Cup is another format which changes the rhythm of things.”

Wins over Edinburgh and Bath earned La Rochelle safe passage through to a last 16 tie with Gloucester before beating Sale and Leinster en route to the final.

A similar draw looks, as was suggested to him, favourable.

“That’s not very nice,” he quipped. “No, I think for us, the first match is at home and there are certain rules for a French team playing at home. It’s an opportunity for us to start quickly and show our level.

“But for Glasgow, they’ll come here with no pressure on them and nothing to lose. They will attack. That’s normal, we’re in the Champions Cup. We’re at the deep end. We want to show that it’s really important for us.

“For teams in France, it means there will be 13 Saturdays in a row without a break. It’ll be a challenge to manage all the players. For us, it’s really important to go into the Champions Cup with a big crowd.

“Given the timing of the 12 matches in the Championship, the Champions Cup comes at the perfect time for us.”

O’Gara concedes that La Rochelle suffered “a hangover” from losing both the European and French finals to Toulouse last season, and sit fifth domestically after suffering a sixth defeat in 12 matches when forfeiting a 20-6 lead in losing 25-20 to Stade Francais last Sunday.

Jules Plisson missed four kicks off the tee in that game and with Ihaia West bound for Toulon, it seems O’Gara may well be in the market for a ‘10’ as the Top14 out-half musical chairs gathers momentum.

Anthony Belleau is moving to Clermont on a three-year deal, which casts some uncertainty on JJ Hanrahan’s future, in light of Camille Lopez being bound for Bayonne, while Handre Pollard is heading to Leicester from Montpellier.

But the 28-year-old Teddy Thomas will seemingly be linking up with O’Gara at La Rochelle from next season.

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