Ronan O’Gara: The holiday that became an adventure that became a mission

We’d fallen in love with La Rochelle. You either make it exclusively career-based — which means you are essentially dragging your family, sometimes against their will, with you — or you treat it as an epic family adventure
Ronan O’Gara: The holiday that became an adventure that became a mission

La Rochelle coach Ronan O'Gara, followed by La Rochelle Head Coach Jono Gibbes, arrive at the Stade Marcel Deflandre for the Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster. Picture: INPHO/Dave Winter

This is brought to you by my considerably better half. Jess has been stalking around the kitchen, reminding me and my column of significant moments and crossroads in this journey, many of which I’d completely forgotten about.

Six summers ago, we got out of Paris for two weeks and headed to the small Atlantic coast town of La Rochelle and the adjacent beaches of Ile de Re. It was the ideal decompression chamber after the extended grunt of the Top 14 season with Racing 92, a place with a restorative quality to it from the moment we pointed the car from town towards the island.

We were discussing this week how much of a subconscious factor that was when the call came from the club two years ago.

One evening in that 2015 summer, this lad approached us in a bar/restaurant and said, ‘You come here to coach our team?’ ‘Only when ye are Top 14’, we half-joked. I had it in my head at the time that they were miles off the top tier. Jess set me right.

They had a modest Pro D2 history and after an initial promotion to the Top 14, they went straight back down again. I never gave it consideration then because I knew that while family was No 1, the rugby project had to make sense and possess ambition. And I was leaving the best club side in the world in Christchurch.

Montpellier were also in the mix at the time, and both Jess and I had good memories of it as a city, even if our most recent visit coincided with my last Munster game in the Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Clermont in 2013.

But we’d fallen in love with La Rochelle. In considering these things, you either make it exclusively career-based — which means you are essentially dragging your family, sometimes against their will, with you — or you treat it as an epic family adventure. Either way, there’s been some big asks. But the minute she said ‘Let’s do it’, the proposition became real.

Ile de Re is Kerry or West Cork with nice weather. It’s the type of place you could happily settle down in and raise your family. The first time I came to the Stade Deflandre with Racing, the atmosphere struck a chord with me, it was very Munster.

They were feisty and passionate and the team wasn’t backwards about coming forwards either. But I knew then, just as I knew when I joined the coaching ticket, that La Rochelle needed to start being uncomfortable in that skin, that sense of ‘we are small, gallant losers’.

It’s one of the many reasons Saturday’s European Cup final is important to win.

La Rochelle has serious, killer threats all over the pitch. I’m not a leprechaun coach and we have a fine group of players. Why wouldn’t we be in a European Cup final?

There was a period in the initial phase when we had to clean house to some degree. Then when we took stock of what was coming in in terms of talent and attitude and there was this four-month sussing out period where it might have gone one way or the other – like, will we drive on here or get dragged down by the modest ambition that been accepted in the past here?

So to finally eradicate that faint whiff of an ‘aren’t we gallant’ culture, silverware is key. The incredibly exciting thing about Saturday is that while the journey so far has been brilliant — and nobody needs convincing any more that we are on the right road — when you’ve won a trophy you don’t have to explain, you don’t even have to talk.

It’s the answer, plain and simple, to the people who still try to pick holes.

I'm always conflicted between appreciating there was a process of being the over-achieving side that Munster were and being desperate to shed that erroneous idea that we were always punching above our weight. With the benefit of hindsight, you reflect on those Munster players and appreciate what a heavyweight outfit it was. I don’t want the La Rochelle players to make the same mistake.

Though I once was, I’m no longer of a mentality where you obsess about the things that can go wrong on Saturday. Instead I find myself twitching with excitement at the things that could go well. And why wouldn’t it go well?

But I’m not a player now. There remains a mental block on the part of some lads about facing Toulouse, and all their European history. They wouldn’t admit that, of course, but you can see it, I can see it. The beauty of the Leinster game was that it was almost a freebie mentally — it was a side outside our domestic league, and there was a novelty. But there was also a recognition of their pedigree as a European superpower, so overcoming them was a hurdle cleared.

In France, Toulouse are the traditional rugby superpower, and they should be winning finals, but the reality is that it’s over a decade since they have won this competition. Saturday’s final isn’t about legacy or tradition or stars on the shirt. It is about performance over 80 minutes at Twickenham.

The process of consistent performance is something we’ve been at for quite a bit. We don’t talk this week about winning the final, we focus on performing at the weekend: If we do this, that and the other, we are well on the way to getting the performance we want. Usually, with the quality of people we have, if we do our jobs right the performance is there, we get the outcome.

La Rochelle coach Ronan O'Gara during a Top 14 match against Clermont last year. Picture: Getty Images
La Rochelle coach Ronan O'Gara during a Top 14 match against Clermont last year. Picture: Getty Images

But everything remains in the moment and about winning the next ball. By making it wickedly competitive in training, the games become an enjoyable experience based on competency and familiarity with what’s expected. If you stress the players harder in training, then it becomes easier to handle the real thing. Maybe for the semi-final, Leinster would have thought that their fitness would be a decisive factor. It wasn’t.

Finals are different, things get quirky. I’ve been in enough of them to know that odd stuff happens — can you control your footwork on a greasy pitch to ensure you don’t give away yellow and red cards? They are the decisive influencers the players have a say in, but with their pure size, that’s a big challenge for a lot of guys, a bigger issue that many would imagine — especially on a wet surface, as it will be on Saturday.

You can’t control the weather but you can get a handle on the referee, something we didn’t do for the first 20 minutes of the Leinster game, and we found ourselves seriously under the pump. They crossed for one try but it wouldn’t have been beyond the realm of possibility for them to have gone 21-0 up in the opening quarter. Aside from the Crusaders, Toulouse have the most X-factor of any club side in the world, so that laxness won’t be a good idea on Saturday.

Will the crowd be a consideration? It might be. Everyone has got used to playing games with no feeling. Watching London Irish and Exeter the other night, there was only a few thousand there, but authentic noise never sounded so loud. There will be 10,000 in Twickenham and it will be something the players need to get reacclimatised to, and fast. 

God help them if they are ever playing in front of 80,000 again.

I had to ask Jess one more thing: when did this season actually start? Between confinement and last year’s European final in the autumn, rugby’s body clock is all askew. In hindsight, the restructured Champions Cup format has been a godsend for French clubs. The Top 14 is such a slog, that a conventional six-game pool stage of the Champions Cup would have been a lot to ask the players to get their heads around.

I imagine the answer I’d have got on that. The fact that we played only one ‘pool’ game and it was virtually knockout all the way gave it a life of its own. We still weren’t sure of our level when we beat Edinburgh and before we went to Gloucester.

But now the players see it for themselves. The absence of commercial activity or fan interaction this week has made it a rather mundane build-up to the biggest game in the club’s history, and the biggest game in European club rugby.

None of that means anything to me either way. The Leinster game was also the biggest game La Rochelle have played on the world stage. The more it goes on, every day becomes a bigger day, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what you want.

I keep Dan Carter’s sage advice as a failsafe. Pressure is a privilege.

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