Ronan O'Gara admits La Rochelle were 'hungover' after double disappointment

"We don’t have the culture or the history at this magnificent club at the moment but that will change."
Ronan O'Gara admits La Rochelle were 'hungover' after double disappointment

Ronan O'Gara Benetti Menswear promotional shoot

Defeats in two finals last summer may have left La Rochelle “hungover” but with a new European campaign on the horizon, Ronan O’Gara is hoping his players have now woken up and smelled the coffee.

After two seasons as head coach under director of rugby Jono Gibbes, O’Gara this weekend takes the wheel of Stade Rochelais for his first Heineken Champions Cup mission as the man at the top of the club’s coaching pyramid.

The fly-half legend with two winners’ medals as a Munster player and a coaching runner-up with both Racing 92 and La Rochelle, will welcome Glasgow Warriors to Stade Marcel Deflandre this Sunday believing his squad has finally shaken off losing both last season’s European final and the Top 14 decider to Toulouse.

Having lost influential centre Lavani Botia to a red card after just 27 minutes at Twickenham in last May’s Champions Cup final at Twickenham, La Rochelle were edged out 22-17 as Toulouse claimed their fifth title. Yet they rebounded to reach the domestic final the following month, only to face Ugi Mola’s side once more and lose 18-8 at Stade de France.

O’Gara and his charges got off to a difficult start in the new league campaign in France, losing four of their first five matches but though the club has now climbed the table to fifth with a played six, won six record after 12 rounds, the Corkman wants the switch to Champions Cup action to serve as a kickstart to 2021-22.

Speaking in an interview issued on Monday by the competition’s organisers EPCR, O’Gara said: “I think we were hungover after the two defeats in the final. For me this is normal. We don’t have the culture or the history at this magnificent club at the moment but that will change.

“From each defeat you learn a lot more than from a victory. It's very difficult to beat a team like Toulouse with their winning mentality but it isn’t impossible to do either. We didn’t put Toulouse under pressure during the 80 minutes, we didn’t make them think twice. That’s really important in a final. We were never leading in the match. When the rain came in the Stade de France we knew they were going to win. At Twickenham, however, with 14 men, we played really well. Perhaps at the end we had a match point but we didn’t get the opportunity in the end.

“That’s okay, we’ll have others. It’s a long season, we need to manage the players well and give opportunities to other players. Our start has been average, yes, but I hope it’s calculated and we can accelerate now.” 

O’Gara likes the format of the Champions Cup, which in this second year of Covid-19 uncertainty and restrictions has retained four rounds of matches for each of the 24 teams within a two pools of 12 clubs each. With Bath their other home and away opponents, he believes the structure will help to provide the change in gears he is looking for from his squad.

“You understand the importance of the Brennus Shield and the history associated with it (in the Top 14). For us the idea of having a Formula One-style sprint for the Champions Cup is really exciting for the players.

“It changes the mindset of the players. Sunday we start with Glasgow, that’s almost knockout rugby already. It’s kill or be killed and we have to keep this frame of mind for the following week against Bath. I think after two weeks we’ll know a lot, whether we’re dead or alive.

“What’s good for us is that even three out of four victories could either work or not be enough. It’s very good for the team that they have four games in row because the Shield is a marathon but the Champions Cup is another format which changes the rhythm of things.” 

Yet O’Gara, named the Heineken Cup’s player of the first 15 years in 2010 and still the competition’s leading points scorer (1365) and appearance maker after 110 games for Munster between 1997 and 2013, knows he can take nothing for granted.

Asked by his French interviewer if he thought fixtures against Glasgow and Bath represented a “favourable draw”, O’Gara replied: “That’s not very nice!

“No, the first match is at home and there are certain rules for a French team playing at home. It’s an opportunity for us to start quickly and show our level. But for Glasgow, they’ll come here with no pressure on them and nothing to lose.

“They will attack. That’s normal, we’re in the Champions Cup. We want to show that it’s really important for us.

“For teams in France it means there will be 13 Saturdays in a row without a break, it will be a challenge to manage all the players. For us it’s really important to go into the Champions Cup with a big crowd. Given the timing of the 12 matches in the championship, the Champions Cup comes at the perfect time for us.”

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