When Ronan O’Gara returns to the Top 14 next month as La Rochelle’s new head coach, he can expect a very different experience and culture in the Atlantic port town than the one he once experienced in Paris.
The Munster legend cut his coaching teeth at big-spending Racing 92, backed by flamboyant and wealthy club president Jacky Lorenzetti, a man with big dreams and a desire to deliver the best for the Parisian club, including a state-of-the-art training facility and spectacular indoor stadium at La Defense.
When O’Gara bids farewell to life in Christchurch with the Crusaders, and links up with director of rugby Jono Gibbes he will in some ways be returning to his rugby roots at Munster for he will find a club that has punched above its financial weight in the Top14 — its annual budget of €25.6million was seventh in the league in 2017-18 and they reached this season’s semi-finals. It also has strong foundations in its community and a clear sense of identity built, literally, on a siege mentality.
The people of La Rochelle, a mainly Huguenot population, were twice besieged in 1573 and 1627-28, first by the military machine of King Charles XI and then by the troops of Cardinal Richelieu and both times the citizens held them at bay.
According to Benjamin Deudon, rugby correspondent of Sud Ouest newspaper, that is a characteristic that has stayed with the townspeople and the club’s enigmatic president Vincent Merling, although there is a new-found willingness to embrace to outside assistance, Merling breaking a long-standing tradition by hiring Gibbes last season to replace a club legend in Patrick Collazo.
“All Blacks captain Graham Mourie proposed himself to play for La Rochelle in the 1970s and the squad said ‘no, we don’t want a New Zealander’,” Deudon told the Irish Examiner. “It wasn’t racism but nor was it a very noble attitude. The town is quite closed and the identity is very strong.
“Cardinal Richelieu besieged La Rochelle and a lot of people died but the citizens did not surrender and that identity remains today. The club wasn’t very open to outsiders in the past but this is a new development and it’s quite a revolution that two important people at the club (Gibbes and O’Gara) will be strangers. It really will be a revolution in La Rochelle.
“Gibbes made sure to buy into the identity and align and that will have pleased such a loyal clubman as Merling, who is the keeper of that identity. Merling is the strongest person at the club.”
If there is an illustration of the differences between La Rochelle and the glamour and galactico mentality of clubs such as Toulon, Montpellier, and Racing, it is perhaps epitomised by Vincent Merling, the longest-serving president in Top14 rugby, once labelled a dinosaur by Lorenzetti.
Neither an owner nor a financial backer at a club run as an association of members, Merling is a former back-row stalwart of the 1970s and 80s who became president in 1991.
A coffee seller by trade, and traditional rugby man at heart, he took a cautious approach to the sport’s transition to professionalism in the 1990s.
“He’s very in love with his club, he’s a Rochelais, played for La Rochelle, his son played for La Rochelle too, they are an important family for the club,” Deudon said of Merling.
“He was against professionalism in the 1990s. For him, professionalism would mean rugby losing its soul so he didn’t build the club this way. Other clubs embraced professionalism more quickly and Merling didn’t have big ambitions.
“La Rochelle is a town of 80,000 and for him it was better to be a strong club with a little ambition rather than a small club with big ambition.”
Promotion from ProD2 to the Top14 did not come until 2010 but they have played to full houses of 16,000 virtually ever since, despite a swift relegation after just one season.
They would not return until 2014 but have made a big splash since, Merling having hired Collazo, who had been a young coach in the Racing academy, to get La Rochelle back into the top flight and sticking with him when others wanted him sacked. Combined with the signing of All Black back-row Victor Vito, the reward was a surprise run to first place in the Top 14 in 2016-17 and this season, with Gibbes at the helm, a return to Champions Cup rugby.
“Merling began to understand his club had a destiny to play in the Top 14 and with the crowds and the stadium atmosphere they could build something very strong.
“He’s happy to be the president of the association, he made the system and he doesn’t want a strong owner like a Mohamed Altrad (the Montpellier president) making everything happen that he wants. This way he can control the future of the club to avoid selling it to someone very ambitious who doesn’t know the club.
“He’s a president that gives coaches time. He’s not like Mohamed Altrad or Mourad Boudjellal (Toulon), he doesn’t fire his coaches, he gives them confidence and nor does he interfere in team matters.
“He’s an experienced president but he doesn’t like to speak in the press, only when he doesn’t have a choice, and he’s often in the changing room but only to listen because he’s a former player and he loves the atmosphere in there.
“He doesn’t give orders to his players, he doesn’t recruit players, just says ‘okay’ or not and for him the coaches are the bosses and he’ll give them time to build their group and let them become stronger. He’s not impatient.
“La Rochelle is not the richest club and he knows you need time so for Ronan O’Gara he won’t be in a club with a Boudjellal who can go crazy with a coach after three months, that’s not the case here.”
La Rochelle is getting stronger and stronger each year and is not short on ambition.
“They’re here to win the Top 14 and Champions Cup every year with Gibbes and O’Gara,” Deudon said. “O’Gara is a strong name in France and for supporters of La Rochelle, him coming here is more proof that the club is ambitious. With La Rochelle, he will be in a quiet club but very passionate and with a strong identity.
“Recruitment will be limited because the feeling is that there is already a very strong group at the club. They want to keep this group, improve this group until victory. It’s not a Galactico philosophy at this club.”