Ronan O’Gara: ‘Our mentality is good, but we have to be better at our rugby’

La Rochelle head coach hopes trip to Cork will galvanise his team into finding their best performance

Leicester, Leinster and Saracens have all tried to failed to complete a three-in-a-row, but if La Rochelle are to equal Toulon’s achievement in winning three Champions Cup triumphs in succession, then they are doing it the hard way.

Two seasons ago, La Rochelle won a home quarter-final and a semi-final against Racing in neutral Lens before beating Leinster in Marseille. Last season they plotted a home route all the way to the final, where they beat Leinster again in Dublin, having been 17-0 and 23-6 down.

But this season, they will have to back up last Saturday’s comeback win in Cape Town over the Stormers by beating Leinster in the Aviva again to earn an away semi-final against Northampton or the Bulls.

Ronan O’Gara, already the competition’s most prolific points scorer of all time, is now seeking to emulate Mark McCall as the only other Irish man to win this competition three times as a coach. After a week in the rarefied air of Cork, he believes his side have the whiff of success in their nostrils again.

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“We want to go again. It’s deeper, it’s touchable, so the reality is in our language there is a team in our way tomorrow. It happens to Leinster and after that there will be two others. So, with all due respect it’s an opposition we need to try and take care of tomorrow to get to where we want to go.

“They have their ambitions, and we respect that, but this team has done immense things and I don’t think we’re anywhere near our potential. So that excites me, but we’re aware that home advantage is huge and we need to be near our best.”

His, and his club’s, decision to travel from Cape Town to Cork may or may not have messed with Leinster’s minds, but it ticked plenty of logistical boxes while, O’Gara hopes, galvanising his team into finding their best performance of the season so far.

“The pre-planning was that if we got through Stormers that it made no sense to go to La Rochelle because it takes from Paris airport to La Rochelle, either by train or bus, another six hours. Six hours up and six hours back in the same week, you lose a training day. You can’t train once and beat Leinster at the weekend.

“So, that was in our planning to give ourselves the best preparation. We had a light week but we got extremely well looked after in Fota. It’s a brilliant venue. The weather was miserable but Con were great, Fota was great.

“We got out a bit. We got to mingle with the Cork public. It was just really refreshing to, I suppose, without sounding cocky obviously, just to see that you mean something to them and that was very, very nice from a personal point of view, and the boys had a good week,” added O’Gara, who pointed to the interruptions of both the World Cup and the Six Nations, since when La Rochelle have had two games against Oyannax and the Stormers.

“We were not as cohesive as we’d like to be, but I think we can hopefully skip a few steps by getting a good buzz from arriving in an unbelievable stadium with a full house and an unbelievably good sod that will hopefully bring back all the good memories of last May.”

Leinster and La Rochelle had never met before the semi-finals three seasons ago, but O’Gara does not believe a fifth meeting in four seasons changes the dynamic of this latest clash.

“No, because it is an unbelievable spectacle and it has done so much for the competition. There are tiny margins in the games. The Covid game at home for us was probably the one where we played near our best rugby and it was a 20-point difference until Leinster scored a late consolation score,” OGara said, recalling his side’s relatively commanding 32-23 win at an empty Stade Deflandre three years ago, in a manner which suggested he’d been reminding his players of that day.

“That for us has to be the goal, that we have to be better at our rugby. I don’t think we have a problem with our mentality but we have to be better at our rugby.

“We have so many threats with and without the ball in our ‘23′ that as a coach excites you because you have a fair idea of the game plan but within that there is a fair few options so you are just looking, can people pick the right option at the right time, which makes it enthralling for me as a coach to be able to see what we prepared. And can we transfer it under the most intense pressure of the club game?”

Nine of Leinster’s starting team, and 14 of their match-day squad, played a part in Ireland’s 38-17 win over France in Marseille on opening night in the Six Nations, and O’Gara could not dispute that this was a boost for Leinster, albeit he found a way to downplay its significance.

“Yeah, as a player, you get confidence from standout performances. That was, without a shadow of a doubt, a standout performance because Ireland battered France in every component of the game. They made them look silly, really.

“It was a statement performance but there’s very little linkage between it,” he added, “and from our point of view, no, because we try to be as good if not better than the French team.

“That’s has to be the goal of my team because we have the best of international players, and we have the best of French players, so we should be as good as any test team.”

Palpably buzzing from his four days back home in his native city, it was clear that revisiting the Aviva Stadium, where he has so many memories as a player as well as last season’s final as a coach, had energised O’Gara too.

“I’m excited to see our backs tomorrow because we haven’t hit anywhere near our straps and it’s good that it’s not Oyonnax or Pau or Castres or Toulon, our French opposition.

“We need to play and that pitch will make us play. That’s the good thing of all this because it’s a world-class surface and hopefully conditions are okay. So, it will be good.”

It was nearing teatime in the Aviva, or early sittings anyway.

“Right? It’s night time,” O’Gara said, smiling. “Yeah, see you tomorrow. Cheers!”

He’s up for it anyway, as you’d expect.

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