Ronan O’Gara: Simon Zebo is still the man for the big occasion

Usually when you lose a European Cup final, there’s no outlet to vent your frustration on or right the wrongs. The Top 14 semi-final has rekindled everyone’s appetite and determination at La Rochelle
Ronan O’Gara: Simon Zebo is still the man for the big occasion

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O'Gara: Usually when you lose a European Cup final, there’s no outlet to vent your frustration on or right the wrongs. The Top 14 semi-final has rekindled everyone’s appetite and determination. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

We had leadership experts into the club this week, mentoring the coaches. The one thing to be parked at the door was a closed mind. Every challenge is an opportunity. Exploring solutions is infinitely more rewarding than problem-solving.

This won’t be the first time you’ve read of the time the Crusaders faced multiple injury problems ahead of a Super Rugby game against the Hurricanes. And the death stare I got from Scott Robertson when I suggested that the ‘Canes would never be better placed to clip us. This wasn’t a problem, he glared, this was a glorious opportunity for others to raise their hand, to be the solution.

He was right. The glass-half-empty paddy in me was pre-disposed to reach for the lowest-hanging excuse instead of exploring a solution that was right there in front of me.

A valuable school-day.

After the European Cup final loss to Toulouse, it took me some time to shake off the disappointment and frustration. I agonised for too long whether to even mention the officials in the following week’s column. Things were lingering. But we are out of that hole now, at least I am.

We’ve had a run of injuries since and La Rochelle is about to find out whether some lads like the look of accessible excuses or whether Friday's Top 14 semi-final against Racing 92 is, as the leadership coaches and Razor would say, a glorious opportunity.

We’ve come too far over the course of the longest season ever to start with the ‘poor us’ cant.

Some facts are there: our French hooker, Pierre Bourgarit, is done for the season with his knee, Levani Botia is suspended and his centre partner Geoffrey Doumayrou is out with concussion. Our back up centres, Jeremy Sinzelle and Pierre Aguillon, can’t help us either. In the final week of the regular session we were without both out-halves and were eight points down away to Clermont with the clock all but expired on 78 mins. Defeat would have consigned us to the ‘barrage’ – the play offs – and the extra game might well have done us.

Let’s chat about Jules le Bail. A nine by trade, he was pitched in as an emergency ten on the night. One critical point though – he’s a proper kicker. I watch him work assiduously week in, week out despite the limited opportunities. Nailing those kicks. And as the clock goes in red, we win a penalty 40-odd metres out. And suddenly I am overcome with this serene comfort because I know he is going to kick this. This isn’t a problem to Jules, this is an opportunity. He is incredibly accurate from 40m in. And his reaction was revealing. Pretty much zero emotion, like he knew too he was going to nail it He’s methodical, he practices a lot. There’s been a European Cup final defeat, injuries, suspension but right now, in this moment, Jules le Bail is problem-solving. And that was rewarding.

La Rochelle's Geoffrey Doumayrou and Raymond Rhule with head coach Ronan O’Gara after the Champions Cup final. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
La Rochelle's Geoffrey Doumayrou and Raymond Rhule with head coach Ronan O’Gara after the Champions Cup final. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Friday night in Lille, we are on the brink of a Top 14 final, so what is the problem? There will be no mention of Covid, or the lack of crowds or the longest season because these nights are why we are up-at-dawn, working-til-dark players and coaches. This is why we get involved, this is what we go after everything for.

We have some building blocks in place for next season, but it’s eclipsed totally by the size of this evening. I’m living the now, so get the job done now. Next season can be progressing away in the background but there’s only one priority.

It was a massive bonus getting last weekend off. We have a lot of energy in our bodies again now, we are ready for a sem-final. If we didn’t get the bonus point at Clermont, I reckon our season would have finished last weekend in the barrage. When you are on the treadmill grinding away, you lose track of what’s going on. But three or four days outside that environment, you get a chance to recharge and regain perspective.

There is a feeling now that whoever is the most disciplined of Racing, Toulouse, Bordeaux-Begles and ourselves - will be the last man standing in this Top 14. This where your dependency on a good group and a squad matters.

Racing are firing at the moment. They danced all over Stade in the Paris derby. They could be missing Juan Imhoff, but I’m sure they’ll be ok with the likes of Teddy Thomas and Simon Zebo, Donovan Taofifenua and Kurtley Beale, Virimi Vakatawa, Finn Russell and Gael Fickou. Plus Machenaud and Iribaren. You think they’ll manage?

I know Racing’s culture, much like I understood Leinster’s for our Champions Cup semi. They’ve had a few near misses, it’s a mature group and it will be interesting going up against three paddies. Don’t tell anyone, but I might even grab a pint with Mike Prendergast in some down-at-heel tavern and see does he leave the Racing game plan in the taxi for me.

Prendy’s been good for Zebo at Racing. Hopefully this is the Cork man’s last game in a Racing shirt; either way he’s made an impression. He’s been unlucky to some degree, like the corner forward in GAA, that when things weren’t going well at Racing, he got the brunt of it a bit. That happens to some flair players, they’re the easy out. But when Racing have been rolling, Zebo has serious X Factor. He wasn’t on the pitch five minutes against Stade when he got a try off an unbelievable pass from Russell.

Simon goes back to Munster with plenty to prove. Any Farrell name-checked him this week and knows there’s a skill in getting the best out of Zebo. The quality is above debate, if he gets his body in good shape, he can be a serious physical weapon as well. He goes through peaks and troughs, like us all in the Top 14 where the nature of the beast dictates you can’t be ‘on’ all the time. But he is still the man on the big occasions, and Munster know that too. With respect, you are not going to see Zebo at his best out in Zebre. He will come into his own in a big European Cup game, because that’s his stage.

Racing's Irish centre Simon Zebo scores a try during the French Top14 rugby union match between against Stade Francais earlier this month.
Racing's Irish centre Simon Zebo scores a try during the French Top14 rugby union match between against Stade Francais earlier this month.

Donnacha Ryan came off the bench against Stade Francais too. If his playing career ends Friday, I’ll try and make it up to him.

We departed La Rochelle at 10am Thursday for Lille. The game’s in the impressive new Stade Pierre-Mauroy and not the old gaff where the ghost of John O’Neill’s try 20 years ago still rattles around the terraces. Given the amount of times I’ve seen pictures in Cork pubs of that Heineken Cup semi-final try that wasn’t against Stade Francais, I’m guessing that in some parallel universe, Munster won that semi-final. The photographic evidence was so conclusive in Jono’s favour that it became the catalyst for the TMO.

The new stadium has a retractable roof and with a damp forecast for this evening, it will be closed because they folks here want a shootout for the tv viewers.

Usually when you lose a European Cup final, there’s no outlet to vent your frustration on or right the wrongs. The Top 14 semi-final has rekindled everyone’s appetite and determination at La Rochelle not to suffer a second kick in the stomach after such a campaign.

The weather’s been good here, there’s a real holiday feel to the place but there are too many challenges to tease out, opportunities to grasp, for anyone to notice.

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