Berjon on standby for baptism of fire in Marseilles

O’Gara is ready to start young La Rochelle scrum-half Thomas Berjon if his hurling glove plan to get Tawera Kerr-Barlow playing despite a fractured hand fails.
Berjon on standby for baptism of fire in Marseilles

La Rochelle's Thomas Berjon passes the ball during the French Top 14 rugby union match between La Rochelle and Perpignan at The Marcel Deflandre Stadium in La Rochelle, western France, on April 23, 2022. (Photo by XAVIER LEOTY / AFP) (Photo by XAVIER LEOTY/AFP via Getty Images)

Ronan O’Gara is ready to start young La Rochelle scrum-half Thomas Berjon in the Champions Cup final against Leinster if his hurling glove plan to get Tawera Kerr-Barlow playing despite a fractured hand fails.

With Jules Le Bail still not fit to return after a thigh injury, the sight of Kerr-Barlow in clear pain in the dugout with ice on his hand in the semi-final win over Racing 92 in Lens was a huge concern for the French side ahead of their third European final since 2019.

The World Cup-winning scrum-half’s absence was initially estimated at six weeks, and has prompted O’Gara to see if Ballincollig-based Mycro Sportsgear could make a glove that may allow him to play a bigger part in the Rochelais’ end-of-season push as they seek silverware in Europe and in the domestic French competition.

Versatile Arthur Retiere, in just his second match since returning from injury, started at scrum-half in the Top 14 defeat at Toulouse at the end of April - his first outing in that position since the 2016/17 campaign, but O’Gara suggested this week that he was ready to name 24-year-old Thomas Berjon at nine for what would be the biggest match of his career.

Berjon, 24, has played 65 matches for the Top 14 side since turning professional, but has started just 17 times in four seasons with the club - as Kerr-Barlow, Le Bail and Alexi Bales, who is now with Toulouse, took the lion’s share of the work.

He has featured in nine Champions Cup games, for a total of 132 minutes - 69 of those in his only start in January 2020’s loss to Exeter.

But O’Gara is confident Berjon’s big-match inexperience wouldn’t be a hindrance, and hinted that he would get the nod over Retiere, if necessary, to form a halfback partnership with Ihaia West opposite Leinster’s likely big-game duo Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton.

“Thomas had a good match against Stade Francais,” he said. “With his quality, Arthur Retiere will always be in the 23, even if I don't know if his best position is nine, 11 or 14. What is certain is that he has an x-factor, and is capable of changing the pace of a match. On the other hand, he is not a specialist at scrum-half, which can be a problem as well as an opportunity. We will see during the week but, at the moment, I prefer that Thomas starts.

“Arthur will have a big role, but he is still not ready to play a full 80 minutes. The goal, for me, is to introduce him at the right time so that he has the best impact.” 

Outside whoever is at nine, Ihaia West - one of 13 key players rested for last week’s Top 14 win - knows a repeat of his semi-final goalscoring performance will not be good enough against one of the most reliable kickers in world rugby.

“It was not a good match for me and the team,” the fly-half admitted. “I made one in four, which is not good enough for a final. We won, that's the most important thing, and I have another chance to do better.” 

Asked if he was concerned about his personal kicking battle with Sexton, he said: “Johnny is a great player, he has already won four European Cups. We need to put pressure on him. But when I’m kicking, I don't have to think about him, I just have to be confident in my preparation and live the moment."

If West needs inspiration, he need look no further than last season’s European semi-final against the same opponents, when he scored five penalties, two conversions and a drop goal to help the French side to a 32-23 win.

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