The importance of calm is not lost on La Rochelle

They plan to enjoy the experience, rather than be overwhelmed by it.
The importance of calm is not lost on La Rochelle

La Rochelle Head Coach Ronan O'Gara celebrates with his team in the changing room after the game. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dave Winter

A more experienced and worldly-wise La Rochelle side are determined not to repeat the nervous mistakes of last year’s Champions Cup final when they face Leinster in Marseille on Saturday.

They plan to enjoy the experience, rather than be overwhelmed by it.

One of Ronan O’Gara’s biggest jobs when he took overall charge at the Top 14 club last July, following the departure to Clermont of Jono Gibbes, was to pick up a squad that had played - and lost - two finals in a matter of weeks.

“Even if you lose a final, you learn things,” he said this week, as the French club prepared to play in their second Champions League final in as many campaigns, while they are also challenging for a place in the Top 14 play-offs. 

“The players have gained a lot of experience after the loss at Twickenham. For me, it is important not to repeat the mistakes of last year.” 

La Rochelle will have learned plenty from last year’s two final defeats to Toulouse - most notably the importance of being calm.

They were particularly frenetic in an unrelentingly frenetic Champions Cup final last May - in which centre Levani Botia’s red card for a wild head-high tackle on Maxime Medard in the first half, and fly-half Ihaia West’s three missed kicks, eventually proved decisive as they lost 22-17.

"Last year, it was a first big final for the club. We were nervous," West admitted to reporters on Monday. "In my opinion, we didn't even compete in either of our two finals [Champions Cup and Top 14]. We were not good under pressure, me first of all."

That was La Rochelle’s second European final defeat in three seasons, after they had lost to French rivals Clermont in the 2019 Challenge Cup showpiece in Newcastle shortly before O’Gara joined the club from Crusaders to work alongside Gibbes.

Six weeks after the defeat at Twickenham, they would go on to lose the Top 14 final.

Now, 11 months after that second dose of heartbreak, La Rochelle have joined a select group of clubs - Toulouse, Brive, Leicester, Leinster, Toulon, and Saracens - to appear in consecutive Champions Cup finals.

They now want to join another select group by becoming the fourth French side to lift the trophy.

"We didn't expect to be back in the final so soon, after last season," said back row Wiaan Liebenberg, who will retire at the end of the current campaign at the age of 29. "To make two finals in a row is very special, it's true. We feel really privileged to be in this situation.” 

He’s noticed that the week leading up to this year’s final in Marseille is a little different to last year.

“This Monday felt like a normal Monday, not the Monday of a final," he said.

“This year, we know what to expect, we are more comfortable, more relaxed. I think that can be a real asset. We don't necessarily feel the pressure around us.

“When there's pressure, you feel like you have to do more. But you don't have to do more than usual: you just have to be more precise without adding pressure.” 

Players and coaches at the Atlantic coast club are well aware of the clear and multiple threats posed by four-time champions Leinster. But the players are focusing on what they can do, rather than worrying about what Leinster may or may not do.

"This season, our strength is that we have a very close-knit group," O'Gara said.

"This year, we're going to enjoy the final a little more and play our game. We need to live in the moment," added West.

And Liebenberg said: "We want to go all the way this time."

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