Ronan O’Gara is not alone in admiring the impressive and seemingly irrepressible form of the Leinster side La Rochelle will face this Saturday but he insisted his focus will be entirely on his own team as they prepare for the Heineken Champions Cup final.
La Rochelle’s head coach acknowledged yesterday that Leinster are a very different proposition than the team his side defeated behind closed doors at Stade Marcel-Deflandre in last season’s European semi-final and that in captain Johnny Sexton they have a fly-half enjoying a rich vein of personal form.
Yet O’Gara also believes his own team from France’s Atlantic coast are stronger than the side that reached both the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals a year ago only to lose both to Toulouse.
First Leinster, a team that was missing both first-choice half-backs last season in Jamison Gibson-Park and Sexton but is now in the Corkman’s words “humming”.
“Twelve months ago, Johnny probably wasn’t playing as good as rugby as he is now,” O’Gara said. “So that’s a positive for Leinster. They’ll have a different nine and a different 10. And a few changes up front as well. But I suppose their DNA stays the same.
“That’s important when you’re trying to tell the French guys that they’ll be highly organised, highly efficient and fit, and highly-skilled. But I suppose we have to take confidence from what happened last year and the key for us will be to try to start well.
“Mentally we are a lot stronger. We’ve been working hard at a lot of things. You have to be very mentally strong to come back to this stage after what happened last year, even though I’m a huge fan of believing that you learn so much from getting to finals.
“I don’t subscribe to the fact that everything is a failure if you don’t get over the line. Yeah, we didn’t get over the line in Europe or in the Top14. We learned from that and we’ve an opportunity to test ourselves in a really challenging environment against a classy team this weekend. I think we’ve probably timed our run nicely.”
Leinster’s improvement over the last 12 months coincides, in O’Gara’s view, with the uptick in Ireland’s form in the Test arena and the exposure of Leo Cullen’s players to Andy Farrell’s coaching staff as well in their own camp.
“I just think their phase game is very good. You look at the players involved, they’re getting the best coaching from Ireland from the likes of Paul O’Connell and then they’re getting finely tuned at Leinster as well from a fantastic coaching group, where they’re being challenged.
“I think it’s great for a player that it’s probably not the one voice, where you get a 10 per cent uplift from a certain coach. You go to Irish camp and you get another uplift, then you come back and tweak it and you get another uplift and that for me is about growing your game and I think they look very confident.
“They look very settled and they trust each other and that’s very important at the highest level.” O’Gara added: “I think for me, it’s about understanding the threats they will pose but genuinely I think as a coach so much of my focus has to be on my boys.
“It’s very very difficult because I’ve never found any occasion in my time as a coach where you get your players to a certain stage where they’re absolutely humming.
“There’s always work-ons in our game and you have to respect the threats that Leinster pose and we do the same as we respected Stade Francais, Montpellier, Bordeaux and Racing. So the flow of the week is quite similar.
“What happens in semi-finals and finals is the margins become smaller and smaller and your capacity to execute gets challenged more so than it does in a regular-season game, so that’s what makes it fascinating.
“There’s some serious players on both sides so it will be about who can put a squeeze on the other team and what team will probably crack under the pressure.”