THE ledger on the longest season is almost in. The crude metric of La Rochelle’s campaign will be determined by Friday night's Top 14 final in Paris against Toulouse. We’ve been in a Champions Cup final and now a Top 14 decider. Losing both seems light years removed from what victory and a first Bouclier in the club’s 123-year history would mean, and there’s a reason for that. Trophies are the benchmark by which most top teams are judged, and it’s something we are quite comfortable with because that means La Rochelle are in the ‘top teams’ conversation.
We lose Friday night and I’ll be absolutely sick, like physically unwell, for four days before managing to wash it out of the system. Either way, though, we are on the map now. We are respected, irrespective of how the final goes. We are gone from upstarts to the new kids on the block. We are nowhere near the aristocrats of French rugby but that’s what we aim to be in time. There’s no point being a flash in the pan. But let’s not kid ourselves or shy away from tonight – it’s an unbelievably good story and season climax if we get over the line and win silverware at the Stade de France.
On this evening, it’s not easy extricate yourself from the here and now of next ball, next challenge, but in the overall, I’d like to think there’s a strong base here on La Rochelle to be successful going forward, that we are building an environment and a culture where whoever wears the jersey will be performing.
I'm more connected to this group than I have been at any stage since coming home from New Zealand for this role. That’s important to state because there were times over the past 24 months when I really thought I might have backed the wrong horse. But we persisted and got them to believe in what we are doing. There’s no magic stardust here. If I have a calling card as a coach, it’s in giving all of yourself, every morsel, every sinew, to the job. And dare to hope you get as much in return. There are no guarantees and there are days you end up saying ‘why am I doing this?’ because there are many who struggle with that balance, who want to ‘take, take, take’.
Give always comes before take. That is life learning. When it all comes together, the more you give in this game, as a player or coach, the more likely you are to be spectacularly and richly rewarded.
When you are trying to show fellas where the finishing line is, and how to get over it, it’s not easy. We reflect now on the Champions Cup final at Twickenham and concede that the occasion definitely got to us. I know we are going to be better prepared Friday night for having gone through that experience. You think the first one is not going to be ‘different’ (how could it be, I’ve played loads of big games’), but it always is, and only when you taste what a final is really like can you comment on it accurately. I’ve mentioned it before here, going down the tunnel in Cardiff before the 2006 Heineken Cup final against Biarritz, Paul O’Connell stressing over and over: ‘We’ve got to play, boys’. After 2000 and 2003, we all knew what he meant.
SO many people have frozen without recognising it on the big occasion. That’s when having your mental wits about you is more important than being physically ready – the body will go but it’s the mind determining it. The immense concentration demanded on these occasions goes well beyond the delivery of ‘a performance’ - that is almost simplistic. This is next ball, and then next ball, staying in the moment, winning the moment. You don’t win every moment, but you win two out of three, three out of five, and these are the jigsaw pieces of performance.
The first one is always the hardest: I’m convinced of that. The players don’t know what winning looks like, they don’t know the taste, they don’t know what that winning dressing room is like pre- or post-game. Through the golden door there are others, because once one final falls for you, a few can follow after. You can go on a run.
That’s the exciting bit, if you get one over the line, you could be away, but you can’t do that without respecting the opposition and Toulouse know how to win trophies - that’s probably their biggest strength.
Last Friday against Racing 92 was interesting, more for the tone of the build-up than the semi-final itself. You could see all week from the La Rochelle players that they’d decided, ‘actually we’re going to beat Racing on Friday’. There was a very measured approach, all the way to the warm-up in Lille. Friday is the next step. If we are ready mentally, we’ll be tough to beat, but if we play tradition and the jersey, we could come unstuck.
We’ve progressed well in how we play the game and the standards the players expect of each other. The bar is a lot higher now, there’s a lot of self-policing going on in the group which is very important in terms of being accountable. Before there were five or six pockets of players; now you have genuine buy-in from the group and it’s manifestly evident they play for each other.
After a thirteen-month season, it seems somewhat mad to consider that next season is just nine weeks away, but we won’t sleepwalk into the orthodox way of doing things in terms of preparation. We will do what we think is right for each player and that will mean individualised programs and a staggered return to training.
If there is an upside to being head coach, it is using that autonomy to control such things. You’ve got to manage players a little bit differently. It’s only a week into their holidays when the boys will realise ‘wow, I’m absolutely shattered’; it’s going to take time to get over that, so they will need extra rest and recuperation. The exciting bit is developing a deeper squad and giving them the opportunity to show what they’ve got. Do we need our Victor Vito or Tawera Kerr Barlow at the start of next season? You need the ones who are looking to make a career for themselves. You need different players at different times. Like a post-World Cup season, you might try your front liners in the first four games and then take them out for a break. It’s something we will discuss properly with the S&C department. But it’s a scenario where your other scrum-halves become really important.
Bolstering the squad for 2021/22 is no easy task. You are always looking to improve what you have, but the sort of option you’d have pre-2023 World Cup might be very different to what’s on the shop shelves after it. Additionally, the ‘JIFF’ regulations on indigenous players in France make it virtually impossible going forward to take a punt on an overseas hopeful. Signings must be world-class, cast-iron starters and there aren’t too many of them hanging around to be picked up. The reality is, going forward, we will need a lot of good French players.
That’s something to look forward to. A change in title for me does not equate to a change in role or dress code. I know my strengths, they are on the pitch, so come what may next season, I’ll be in a tracksuit, continuing with a coaching role and, hopefully, getting better at managing fresh responsibilities. I’ll be doing pitch sessions day in, day out. I just hope it’s with the Top 14 champions.