Summer’s over in Ile de Ré but O’Gara and La Rochelle are only getting warmed up

Temperatures in August and September on France’s Atlantic coast sky-rocketed to the upper thirties and beyond, but the coiffured poses and the season’s spending splurge remained stubbornly consistent all the way to the last knockings of summer.
Summer’s over in Ile de Ré but O’Gara and La Rochelle are only getting warmed up

NAUGHTY STEP: La Rochelle's Ronan O'Gara prior to Saturday's clash with his old club Racing 92 at Marcel-Deflandre Stadium. 

IN Rivedoux Plage, on the eastern tip of Ile de Re island, Alain and his son Thibaut are dismantling the haphazard beach bar – and it wouldn’t take long – that has been a staging post for the visiting summer set and the recession proof.

Temperatures in August and September on France’s Atlantic coast - like the tariffs - sky-rocketed to the upper thirties and beyond, but the coiffured poses and the season’s spending splurge remained stubbornly consistent all the way to the last knockings of summer. They quaffed oysters and shelled prawns, drank Guadaloupe rum and washed their convertible motor cars with scarce water.

On the north shore, in delightful St Martin, they brush the dusting of delicate pastries off the table at the swish Hotel de Toiras in the harbour mouth. Between Rivedoux and St Martin is La Flotte, where rental bicycles stop and wonder at the scope of the wealth enjoying long lunches at tables with perfectly-creased cloth at the five-star Hotel de Richelieu. Most content themselves with extended lunch and digestifs.

Three miles away is the mainland and across an extensive vehicular bridge, the city of La Rochelle fixes its blue collar and looks on with mild bemusement. “It is a different country, Ile de Re,” one explained.

Come Saturday, the island essentially pulled up its drawbridge and down its shutters. The boulangerie stores away some of its floor furniture for the long stretch to 2023. In the village of Rivedoux, the local taverns like La Maree and La Chaloupe, where entrecote comes at €30 a cut, greet their local custom with a warmer hug.

As the cycle lanes clear, boules commands its rightful place streetside.

Outside Steph’s boulangerie, two veterans of the summer cycle taste beer and fashion rugby conversation before the arrival of a recognisable face to everyone brings the evening into sharp focus. Ronan O’Gara, the head coach of Stade Rochelais is on his way home from kids rugby practice and stops off for a brief rendezvous. Behind the counter, the café owners await affirmation of their cameo role in the life of Stade Rochelais, the sporting and economic heartbeat of the region. He exchanges pleasantries en francais.

Even those oblivious to the schedule of the Top 14 that brings Paris’ Racing 92 to the west coast of France this evening could hardly remain so for the number of natives dressed in the team’s black and yellow regalia. The local supermarche presents ‘Sud Ouest’ at checkout with pre-match coverage on its front page. ‘The coach is a god around here’, the lady in the pharmacy declares with the additional relish being his neighbour on Ile de Re provides.

If Ile de Re is a suitable bolthole for Ronan O’Gara and his family, the business of career and the search for achievement is in La Rochelle, the old port city that still bears the architectural emblems of its renaissance past. This is rugby country, the nearest Ligue Un football presence being Nantes some 120 kms away. O’Gara has found a project, now he drives that project. His family have ridden shotgun in Paris and Christchurch but La Rochelle is only 80 minutes from home. People speculate about O’Gara’s next coaching move all the time with good reason. Alongside the Crusaders' Scott Robertson, he may be the most sought-after coach in world rugby but there is little to trump life in Charente-Maritime at the minute. Things can change quickly in pro sport but it feels like the La Rochelle ascent has a lot of ceiling above it.

Nowadays the port area is awash with bars, creperies and high-end eateries, and earlier this summer throbbed to the unforgettable sights and sounds of the greatest weekend in Stade Rochelais’ history. Victory in the Heineken Champions Cup final over Leinster didn’t just annex the club’s first piece of silverware, it assuaged the deeply-felt sense of inferiority the town and its rugby sensed when pitched against the aristocracies of the game in France.

Anyone searching the Club XV executive lounges on Saturday for the architects of that achievement would easily spot La Rochelle’s owner Vincent Merling glad-handing guests from Racing 92 and corporate supporters of his own while chief executive Pierre Venayre checked that everyone was sipping Sauvignon Blanc and nibbling at exotic ham sliced so thin as to be transparent.

The television screens around the room confirmed that Ireland’s Ultan Dillane would partner Will Skelton in the second row for La Rochelle, and that Antoine Hastoy, the out-half brought in from Pau to add class and consistency to the pivotal ten position, remains an absentee for the next five to six weeks. A big blow.

Anyone searching for the head coach at Stade Marcel Deflandre might have to go searching for the bold step in the wake of O’Gara’s six-game sideline suspension for speaking inappropriately and out of turn a few weeks ago against Lyon.

His wife Jessica, four boys and daughter Molly are joined in the stand by O’Gara’s parents, Fergal and Joan. One has the match programme rolled up tight and tense. The other fingers the rosary beads as she admits that coaching is multiple times worse than playing to suffer from the helpless seats.

She should listen to the taxi driver who ferried us from the port area to the ground and who spoke with passion and eloquence not just of the pride the town feels now as European champions but of the fundamental importance of Stade Rochelais to the business community and, indeed, most of its 80,000-odd inhabitants. Rugby is the city’s lifeblood and the local team are royalty here, whatever of across the bridge. He tells with relish bringing Jessica and her friends home to Ile de Re one evening, singing and laughing, and how the match traffic chaos never seems to grate as long as La Rochelle win.

They did so again on Saturday, unconvincingly it might be said, to take top spot in the Top 14 with a fourth win in their opening five games.

SETTLING IN: La Rochelle's Ultan Dillane (L)
SETTLING IN: La Rochelle's Ultan Dillane (L)

Racing’s Finn Russell kicked the visitors into a nine point lead, and though a Stade try brought the stadium to its feet, a crass defensive error from Teddy Thomas, who La Rochelle signed from Racing, allows the Parisians a soft try and a 16-7 half time lead.

La Rochelle were stuck in neutral and guilty of poor execution out of touch and in-field. The night is wet but La Rochelle’s handling is inexcusably bad, making a mockery of their coach’s ambitions to keep the ball alive. They couldn’t keep it dead or alive.

Before the game the supporters fill the club shop - where prices would make an Ile de Re resident blush – and queue at the concession stands, full of humour and expectation. But when it doesn’t happen the capacity crowd of 16,000 – the 70th consecutive sellout at the stadium – doesn’t desert their folk heroes and rises with noise at the prospect of positive moments.

“It’s like Thomond in the good old days,” beams Jessica O’Gara.

REDEMPTION; After blundering in the first half Racing 92's French wing Teddy Thomas made amends with a decisive try against his old club Racing 92
REDEMPTION; After blundering in the first half Racing 92's French wing Teddy Thomas made amends with a decisive try against his old club Racing 92

True to the script, Thomas atones for his earlier gaffe to dot down in the corner midway through the second period, his first Top 14 try for his new club, to give Stade an unlikely lead, all the more so as the sideline conversion from Dillian Leyds is especially awkward. “They kept going, that’s the key thing,” O’Gara mused afterwards.

That they did, and another try from outside centre Pierre Boudehent in the 76th minute calms everyone’s nerves. Supporters skip, not scurry, for the exits.

Afterwards the port is alive as midnight approaches but back at the club there is relief that the team hasn’t committed the most grievous sin of all in France – losing at home.

It will be another hour and more before O’Gara and his clan will climb into their cars and head back over the bridge to the island of kings. Sunday will bring Sunday reviews and contemplation and some coffee and pastries in La Flotte.

In Rivedoux Plage, the rosary beads are stored safely for next week.

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