The former legend of the Irish team, now coach of Stade Rochelais, faces Saturday (at 5:45 p.m.), in Marseille, his compatriots from Leinster in the final of the European Cup.
At least, La Rochelle will not have all of Ireland facing it on Saturday, May 28, during the final of the European Rugby Cup. As opposed to Leinster, whose workforce resembles that of the national team, the Maritimes will also have a representative of the Emerald Isle in their ranks. And not least: the legend Ronan O’Gara.
Head coach of the Rochelais, the 45-year-old Irishman knows his future opponents well. In his past as a player (1997-2013), the former opening half was the man of only one club: Munster, a rival province of Leinster. “But it doesn’t matter whether it’s Leinster or another club opposite, what matters is to be in the final”, tempers the interested party, in a French tinged with a strong accent evoking more of his Irish years than his born in San Diego, USA.
Before taking his place at the edge of the field on Saturday, Ronan O’Gara the coach took a path that few people would have guessed from the time of Ronan O’Gara the player. In 2013, the opener left the lawns with a record as long as his kick, whether in a club (two European Cups in 2006 and 2008, the record for points scored in the competition) or with the green jersey of the XV du Clover (128 selections, a Six Nations Tournament in 2009).
It seems logical that he then begins his career as a coach where he finished as a player, at Munster. But Ronan O’Gara takes everyone on the wrong foot by packing his bags in France, at Racing 92 (then Racing Métro 92), in 2013.
Defence, management, and demand
Even Laurent Labit, coach of the Ile-de-France club alongside Laurent Travers at the time, was surprised by this choice. “We obviously knew the player, but we were a little surprised that he wanted to come to us,” explains the assistant coach of the Blues. The duo decides to give it a shot anyway and hires O’Gara as a kicking coach.
“It was important for me to leave my country, especially since I have always been fascinated by France”, says the Irishman, who nevertheless experienced the worst difficulties against the XV of France (12 defeats and a draw). for three wins) during his career.
Far from Munster, Ronan O’Gara learns quickly. He, who was not known to be a great tackler, quickly took charge of the defense of the Ile-de-France club. “He was tired of being considered only as a goalscorer, remembers Laurent Labit. Just because you don’t have the defender’s profile doesn’t mean you don’t like it. He has a remarkable organizational ability, and he made us one of the best defenses in Europe. »
The results are not long in coming, with in particular the title of champion of France acquired in 2016 at the expense of Toulon. O’Gara is also useful in the management of the English-speaking players of the club, starting with Jonathan Sexton, who arrived at Racing at the same time as him, a few years after taking over from the Irish team.
But O’Gara struggles to lead the whole group. “He could be terrible in management with players who played few games. He had trouble understanding their presence in the workforce and did not hesitate to let it be known, ”says Laurent Labit.
“I’m a very demanding person,” admits O’Gara bluntly. But I also think I have a lot of empathy. I try to understand the man before the player. “ A character trait developed by leaving Racing in 2017 to go to the other side of the world, to New Zealand, to the Crusaders.
Coach of the backs of the franchise for two years, he won two Super Rugby (competitions where teams from the southern hemisphere compete) during an experience that “changed everything” for him. “Today, I see the positive everywhere, I am much more optimistic in rugby as in everyday life. »
“The Culture of Winning”
Back in Europe, O’Gara chose France again by heading to Charente-Maritime in 2019, first as a duo with New Zealander Jono Gibbes, then alone at the helm since then. this season.
The winds are quickly turning in the right direction: after a first season cut short by the health crisis, the Rochelais will reach the final phase of the European Cup in 2021 (with a victory over Leinster in the semi-finals in passing) and of the championship. de France, stumbling each time against Stade Toulousain in the final.
“Like the other Irish people, he has a pretty incredible mindset. He has this culture of winning, explains Laurent Labit. He is convinced that if the players do the right thing, they can win every game this season. »
Remarks confirmed Monday, May 23, at a press conference, by the third row from La Rochelle Wiaan Liebenberg: “He often says that playing a final is not interesting, what matters is to lift the trophy. He loves big moments, he lives for it. »
Ronan O’Gara is “so fascinated by rugby”, by his own admission, that he has long carefully avoided dealing with the press, for fear of being diverted from his objective or having his words misinterpreted. “He was marked by the tabloids when he played in Ireland, confirms Laurent Labit, who would see him return there. I’m sure he has the selection in the back of his mind. »
He assures him, that he sees himself lasting in La Rochelle, and precisely creating an “Irish” atmosphere, with players signing up for the long term. There’s nothing like a first European title to definitively bring Stade La Rochelais into a new era.