At least La Rochelle won’t have all of Ireland up against them on Saturday May 28 in the European Rugby Cup final. 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 playing past (1997-2013), the former fly-half was a one-club man: Munster, 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 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 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 began 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’ve 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 over the defense of the Ile-de-France club. “He was tired of being considered only a scorer, remembers Laurent Labit. Just because you don’t have the defender 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 a 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,” O’Gara admits 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 (competition 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 when he headed 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 interrupted by the health crisis, the Rochelais reach the final phase of the European Cup in 2021 (with a victory over Leinster in the semi-finals in passing) and the championship de France, stumbling each time against Stade Toulousain in the final.

“Like other Irishmen, he has a pretty incredible mindset. He has this winning culture, 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 line of 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, he sees himself lasting in La Rochelle, and precisely creating an “Irish” atmosphere, with players signing up for the long term. Nothing like a first European title to definitively bring Stade La Rochelais into a new era.