Ronan O'Gara: We need to 'get stuck into' Johnny Sexton

The La Rochelle head coach texted Sexton earlier this week to try and meet up for a coffee but their schedules haven’t allowed it
Ronan O'Gara: We need to 'get stuck into' Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton & Ronan O'Gara. Photo(s): Sportsfile / Inpho

Ronan O’Gara has promised that his La Rochelle team will look to ‘get stuck in’ to Johnny Sexton when they face Leinster in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final in Marseille.

The Leinster out-half and captain has been targeted by opposition players and coaches all through his long and illustrious career but O’Gara framed his assertion in a context of unequivocal respect for his old teammate and rival.

The La Rochelle head coach texted Sexton earlier this week to try and meet up for a coffee but their schedules haven’t allowed it, even on Friday with Leinster’s captain’s run at the Stade Velodrome followed two hours later by their opposition’s.

“I don’t have an hour, genuinely, to explain what he’s good at,” said O’Gara when asked about Sexton. 

"When you come out of your playing days, you see the game a little bit differently, you see the importance of relationships, you see the importance of enjoying the journey.

“A lot of people I enjoyed it with aren’t around anymore, they passed away unfortunately, so you’ve got to be reminded we’re in a great place, you’ve got to be able to enjoy tomorrow. I’ve experienced every emotion with Johnny and I respect him a lot. I enjoy his mindset, and I enjoy how he goes about his business.

“I think he’s happier that his hotel wasn’t near mine because he wasn’t too keen on the coffee. It is easier when you don’t have to… I can drink coke tomorrow or drink water, the boys have got to suffer, on both teams.

“They’ve got to prepare mentally, and, yeah, I’ve got to prepare mentally as the coach, that’s for certain, but he’s going to be 37 in July and that’s some achievement to be playing the way he is at the minute. We need to get stuck into him. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him because I think they play differently when he’s on the pitch.” 

Their relationship has changed dramatically from its earliest days when they were rivals on the pitch with Leinster and Munster and vying for the same No.10 jersey with Ireland. Their mutual stint at Racing 92 - one as coach, the other as out-half - went a particularly long way in engineering the thaw.

Respect for the other’s achievements goes both ways.

“He’s done a fantastic job with them,” said Sexton. “Fair play to him, getting to three finals in a row, that's a great achievement with a team that historically wasn't a powerhouse in France but someone like Jono Gibbes needs to take huge credit for that as well, for the work that he's done over the last couple of years. We know him well obviously.” 

That’s true but this latest crossing of paths with O’Gara holds far more fascination for people than the work done by Gibbes, the former Leinster forwards coach who has now moved on from La Rochelle to Clermont Auvergne.

Sexton, though, seems wryly amused by this interest.

“So yeah, they're a team to be reckoned with and they obviously knocked out us out last year, so that's all our focus. Myself and Rog, I don't even know how to think about that considering I'm a player and he's a coach. I thought the (Felipe) Contepomi clash would have been more interesting, to be honest… And I don't think they've been in touch.” 

He is right in the sense that his relationship with O’Gara is nothing more than a sideshow here this week. The more important issues discussed on Friday included the return to the La Rochelle starting line-up of Will Skelton.

“It’s a massive boost,” said O’Gara. “I don’t think you can overestimate what he will do for our team. Very few players in the world like him. It’s been a really careful plan to try and get it to this stage. It’s delicate when you have a frame like he has and unique calf muscles like he has but he is ready to go.

“Obviously he is shy on game time but he is a serious professional, hidden behind working in the shade behind the scenes so it is a massive boost for our team. He gives us energy. I don’t think opposition like playing him. Physically he is very difficult to play against so it is a massive, massive, massive boost to us this week.”

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