Ronan O’Gara was bluntly honest in his assessment of La Rochelle’s performance after they were comprehensively outplayed by a streetsmart Toulouse in Friday’s Top 14 final.
"Toulouse were ten times better than us,” he said, after watching the 18-8 defeat in frustration from the sidelines. “It's disappointing but easy to accept because the result was predictable.
“We weren't precise, we never got into the game, we gifted Toulouse too much and against a team like that, it's too difficult.
“To play like that in the final is a big disappointment. I think of the fans who travelled to watch that ...That's not us, that wasn't a reflection of everything we've done this season. At this level, sport is unforgiving.
“The truth is that Toulouse hit harder than the other teams. Will (Skelton) lost the ball two or three times and that gives the opposition a lot of energy. At half-time, the whole dressing room was a bit shocked.
“I have to congratulate Toulouse. We weren't caught up in the emotion but you can't win a final if your leaders aren't performing well. You play 26, 27 good matches and now everything is in the bin. That's the truth.
“We need to be better,” he said. “That’s across the board - me, the coaches, players, everyone … but it’s good to have that ambition.”
Even before the rain started to fall, an uncharacteristically poor La Rochelle were barely in the game. They were chasing the scoreboard as early as the third minute after Thomas Ramos, starting at fly-half in the absence of the injured Romain Ntamack, slotted a 50m opening penalty.
And Ihaia West had an ill-timed off-day, missing a chance to level the scores from the restart.
Ramos would go on to contribute 15 of Toulouse’s match-winning 18 points and claim the player-of-the-match award for a second time in as many outings, while West would slot just one of three attempts at goal in a performance that highlighted his shortcomings at 10.
La Rochelle reached the European and Top 14 finals for the first time in their history this season. In the space of a month, they lost both matches to the same opponents. But where they were fire-and-fury in defeat in May’s Champions Cup final at Twickenham, they were something of a damp squib at Stade de France on Friday.
It took them 43 minutes to get on the scoreboard - courtesy of West’s second penalty kick - and another 34 to score the only try of the game, via Dany Priso off a lineout drive. By then, however, it was far too late.
Ramos had already scored his 15 points, and Cheslin Kolbe’s 50m drop goal just before halftime was the highlight of a final otherwise short on drama.
Gregory Alldritt told broadcaster Canal Plus: "It's night and day between the Twickenham final and tonight's final. At Twickenham, we competed, today we did nothing, we were never in a position to win.
“What went wrong? I can't answer that question … we didn't do anything, everything we wanted to do, we didn't do it, we didn't hold on to the ball. They (Toulouse) were very realistic, they scored their points.
“There is nothing to say about this match. It's not a season to throw away, we have to draw on the consequences.
“As Ronan (O'Gara) says, we have to keep knocking on the door and one day it will open."
Toulouse’s performance was admirable in its way, a ‘game won on details’, in the words of the champions’ loosehead Cyril Baille - who had shrugged off the scrum pressure from Uini Atonio and Will Skelton. But it was no end-of-season crowd pleaser.
“This match is not representative of our season,” O’Gara said. “They say a final shows the weaknesses of a team. We saw them clearly tonight. We were caught out physically. Toulouse hit us hard. I was impressed. We were disturbed by that.
"It's going to upset me a lot this summer, but that's my job. I have to digest and try to come back stronger."
O’Gara officially takes over the hotseat at Marcel Deflandre on July 1, when Jono Gibbes replaces Franck Azema at Clermont. But Gibbes, he said, was as disappointed as he was not to be able to end his tenure at La Rochelle with a first-ever title.
“He was disappointed. He’s a good guy, a really good guy. It’s been really good working with him. Contrary to what some people might say, it’s been a really good relationship - he’s been excellent with the forwards, I’ve been in control of the backs and we’ve shared other responsibilities.
“But he’s disappointed and he’s scratching his head a little bit just like I am - that’s how it is with sport.”
He doesn’t expect major changes in personnel when he takes charge for next season, but accepts improvements need to be made. “We’ve quite a stable squad. I think when we look at that, players will be disappointed with their individual performances, we just have to be better. It’s not a case of finger-pointing - on the big stage we didn’t play well.
"You’ve got to take the good with the bad. That’s my job. I am proud to be the new boss of this team. I’m not going to throw everything in the bin.”
And he will look to himself for many of those improvements.
“It is shattering,” he said of the second final defeat this season. “It’s a career like no other being a head coach, you’ve a lot of responsibility but it’s something I love doing. It’s not going to take away from my appetite.
"I look forward to Deflandre being full of supporters and making improvements to our game - we need to be better.
“There are always learnings. You’ve got to know when to peak. There’s no point us being really good in September, October, November, December … You win medals on June 25th.
“With a bit of hindsight, getting to a Champions Cup final and a Top 14 final is great, but look where Toulouse are. They’ve done the double. You’ve just got to tip your hat to these guys.”
Toulouse won't worry about the pragmatic style of their win. History will record their 21st title, rather than the manner of it.
As Maxime Medard said: “We never get tired of it - it’s reward for a difficult year. We played simple rugby and made the most of Thomas’s boot.
“We’ve had four complicated years, but we are in the process of coming back to the highest level. Bravo to La Rochelle for their journey - they will win titles in the future."
And Ramos added: “These are huge matches - and we were calm and played with realism.
“The chills started to arrive with this crowd at the end of the match. We have done the double and no one can take it away from us."
Just 14,000 fans were allowed into Stade de France because of Covid-19 restrictions. But they were enough for Antoine Dupont. “Just the 14,000 - we felt them. There is this thrill when the public chants your name.
“We're going to enjoy it. On occasions like this, you forget how tired you are. We knew what was at stake, we had the motivation, so no one felt tired tonight and we won't feel it in the days to come.
“The double ... It seemed utopian at the beginning of the season, we did it, we're going to savour it."
Kolbe, Mallia, Chocobares, Ahki, Lebel (Médard 73), Ramos, Dupont (Balès 78’); Cros, S. Tolofua (Kaino 52’), Elstadt - Ri Arnold (Tekori 58’), Ro Arnold (Flament 66’) - Faumuina (Aldegheri 61’), Marchand (Mauvaka 57’), Baille (Neti 62’)
Dulin (Favre 22’), Lleyds, Rhule, Doumayrou, Retière, West (Plisson 64’), Kerr-Barlow (Le Bail 73’); Gourdon, Alldritt (Vito 47’), Liebenberg - Skelton, Sazy (Lavault 61’) - Atonio (Joly 67’), Bosch (Lagrange 67’), Wardi (Priso 61’)