Ronan O’Gara: How La Rochelle walked the final, painful yards to the summit

Ronan O’Gara: How La Rochelle walked the final, painful yards to the summit

IT’S Thursday now. The tremendous happiness I felt waking up on Monday is still there, so it must be authentic. There have been beers and barbecues, parades and passionate celebration. I so admire what the lads did last Saturday in Dublin. 17-0 down, 23-7 down, the composure, the rugby, the balls to dig that out. I like that a lot. 

That is a team getting better in front of our eyes. Two years ago, La Rochelle wouldn’t have been able for that. Whatever of themes and messages, we are enjoying it and doing this together. We have a real team spirit now.

Ten years of coaching learnings later, it’s gratifying to proudly watch back a performance I’d sign up to seven days a week. My wife has felt obligated to remind me on occasions this week that I’m 46. That has its advantages too. You appreciate the stuff a player doesn’t. Now their names are engraved on the trophy, in rugby chapters and books, in its history. That’s it. How simple it is. No matter what happens for the rest of their lives, it’s Romain Sazy, European Cup winner. May 2023.

That’s as real as it gets. And it’s forever.

** 

On Wednesday night, we had the European champions in our back yard. It felt more like a barbecue with friends. The players had threatened this after the final. We’ll sort. You won’t have to lift a finger. They were almost as good as their word. As always. I was only trusted with running to the local Cash and Carry for ketchup, mustard and mayo. They did the heavy lifting. As always. Chipped in to buy and deliver one of those massive Argentinian barbecues they have for assados. Six metres broad and long. 

Joel Sclavi – who else? – and Paul Boudehent put on the aprons. Six kegs of beer. All the buns, burgers and dogs, pork ribs and chicken you could shake a stick at. The boys took over. 

Then there was a moment between courses I knew it was time to pull the wagon off their road.

There are sober thoughts. My head is still there, in that first 15 minutes at the Aviva. I broke the golden coaching rule of staying in the moment. At 17-0, I was already into half-time talk mode, about salvaging pride in the second period. Regaining respect. If they scored a fourth try, it was 24-0. Thirty-one wouldn’t be long after.

Dan Sheehan is a fantastic rugby player. Blindingly quick for a hooker. We were caught cold with the first try off a lineout and by the time Sheehan is grabbing his second and Leinster’s third try in the corner, we’ve Tawera Kerr-Barlow in the bin. It was a 12-minute cycle in a fast-spinning tumble dryer. My mouth was dry. My face flushed. It felt like a good time to be rattled.

It’s well advertised how Leinster make hay when the opposition has a player in the bench. All that and more made Jonathan Danty’s try on 18 minutes the game-changer. That was our full-back, Brice Dulin, at nine for that try. That was a huge, huge, seven points. The critical exchange I had in the half-time tunnel was not with Sean O’Brien or Johnny Sexton. It came from our assistant coach, Sebastien Boboul, who was as energised as I was by the 23-14 score. Result. We were eight down in Marseille last year, he said. I knew it was something to work into the message.

TIES THAT BIND: Ronan O’Gara is reunited with his former Munster teammate Federico Pucciariello at Aviva Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

I’ll be forever grateful and empowered for the experiences with the Crusaders in Christchurch, for giving me the understanding of being composed and relaxed, and how important it is. There’s something of an Irish default setting in me that feels like a wound-up clock. Nervous edginess, uptight jitteriness, blaming the referee, and everything else for our issues. Internalising things, no time for fun and joking. It’s combustible and it’s the wrong way to go about things.

I love the words ‘care’ and ‘connect’. I don’t even think there is a direct and accurate French translation for those feelings but there is a basic fundamental there. Consistent behaviours create a proper culture. If you are a langer to them on Monday, they won’t forget by Saturday. You have to be consistent. Be a langer all the time if you want to. It’s better than an emotional Jekyll and Hyde.

*** 

The Radisson St Helen in Dublin was a good call as a pre-match base. Beyond everything, it has a great team room facility that facilitates good chats. It’s important in the last 24 hours before a match of this scale that players are not confined to lying on the bed in their room. That doesn’t do it. You want guys having coffee and talking, shooting the breeze, playing table tennis if they want to. But content. That we were the reigning champions helped. The boys knew how to be measured and concise. I put up the squad in the meeting room. Uini Atonio in a French jersey. Will Skelton in an Australian jersey. Levani Botia in a Fiji jersey. Kerr-Barlow in an All Black shirt. UJ Seuteni in a Samoan top. This is the best team in the world, they were told.

Now show that.

For the final, the big thing for us was we knew how to get to the summit of Everest. We weren’t sure this Leinster did. We employed the word brutal. If you want to do the summit of Everest, you had to walk over corpses. 

Leinster have been shadow-boxing for large parts of the season. How many corpses had they to walk over between September and May? That’s not disrespect, that’s rugby reality. We felt that when it came to the thinnest air, when they are on the ropes, gasping for breath, they could struggle. We had to make some part of it, a crucial part, tight and tense. I often describe the Top 14 pejoratively as a slog, but it girds you. And finals demand the ruthless killer in you. 

We placed a huge emphasis on the bench because it had to come down to the last quarter. Ultan, Sclavi, Henri-Colombe, who ultimately won us the final. I’m still getting to know our hooker Quentin Lespiaucq. In the game’s last play, with the drama all around, and the noise cacophonous, with everything on the line, when he had to find a La Rochelle hand, he went right to the tail to Remi Bordeaux. The balls on that! This lad ain’t frightened by finals footie, I said to him later. It’s my job, he said. Routine, Process. Postmen and Roy Keane stuff.

There were little things from Marseille last year that were replicated. On Friday after the Captain’s Run at the stadium, Kyle Hatherell and Ultan Dillane – like Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Victor Vito last year – went and sourced some posh doughnuts in Dun Laoghaire and got them delivered to Lansdowne Road. We sat down in the dressing room after with good tunes and fresh cream.

JOB DONE: La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara celebrates with staff and players. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

*** 

Friday evening, we asked the players: Qui emmeneras-vous sur votre Everest ce weekend? (Who will you take on your Everest this weekend?).

David Sharkey, from Mullingar, is an important part of the La Rochelle jigsaw. He’s based in London and works remotely with us on themes. My brain isn’t wired for connecting all the themes into something linear and cohesive. I’m already jumping onto the next bit, so he manages to tie it all together nicely, the message we want to impart. He’s an English teacher, which helps because his language is good, which is really important. I tell him what I am thinking, and he develops the theme.

George Mallory was an English mountaineer who died some hundreds of metres from the summit of Mount Everest in 1924. His remains weren’t confirmed, identified and removed from the mountain top until 1999, some 75 years later. He is often described as Le plus celebre cadavre de L’Everest – the most famous corpse on Everest.

He scaled Everest with Andrew Irvine, and carried with him a picture of his wife, Ruth. Mallory knew how difficult and challenging the ascent would be. When he felt like giving up, he would need inspiration. He would look at his wife. We don’t know whether he reached the top. The truth lies in the snow. But when his remains were found, the picture wasn’t on him. Did he get to the summit, know his pending fate, and leave the picture of his wife there?

MUM’S THE WORD: Ronan O’Gara with mother, and Joan at Lansdowne Road. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

We asked who would be the person the players wanted to walk the most

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