"Ronan O'Gara came in and said, 'On the 28th of May, we are winning the Champions Cup'"
"ROG lives there. He's got a massive mansion there. 12 bedrooms, for all his kids."
Will Skelton delivers it straight as you like before, after a beat, breaking into a big smile. Ronan O'Gara may have a big flock, but he is not at the 12-bedroom stage, yet.
It is the Monday morning after a weekend win for Stade Rochelais over Racing 92, at Stade Marcel Deflandre. O'Gara's side staged a second half fight-back to down the Parisians, moving to the Top 14 summit in the process. As satisfying as that achievement was, the club was rightly crowing about the match being their 70th successive home sell-out.
Two days after that game and the players are all keenly aware of that home attendance run. There is as huge source of pride around it.
La Rochelle is the town and Stade Rochelais the rugby club, but they are interchangeable at this stage. They loop and cross together like DNA strands. The population of La Rochelle, situated on the West coast of France, is just a shade over 75,000 and the club's home ground - packed out for every game over the past five seasons - is 16,000.
For club captain Grégory Alldritt, the club represents not just the town but the whole Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. 12 new players arrived at the club, over the summer, and there are dual goals - retain the Champions Cup and win their first ever Bouclier de Brennus [Top 14 title]. Asked what message he, as captain, would give the newcomers, which includes Teddy Thomas and Ireland lock Ultan Dillane, Alldritt says:
"The best message for the team is to watch the video of last year at the harbour, when we had more than 30,000 people around the harbour for us [when we paraded the Champions Cup]. What we said at the start was, 'This is a new season a new chance at history. We are going to create our own history. We don't want to stay focused on the past, but watch this video of the harbour, watch this stadium full for every home game. We hope that everybody feels we are really playing for a town, a region, and we're not playing for one person putting money on the team'."
Millionaire and billionaire club owners catching strays there, but the Alldritt message rings true.
For Dillane, who arrived from Connacht in the summer and started in the second row with Skelton in that Racing win, La Rochelle 'is a lot like Galway, in it's size and laid-back vibe, only the sun shines a bit more here'.
La Rochelle is HEAVING!
⚫️🟡 🏆 pic.twitter.com/lNRya3O8rD
— Pat McCarry (@patmccarry) May 29, 2022
Grégory Alldritt on Ronan O'Gara's European Cup message
Back in 2014, Stade Rochelais was promoted back to the Top 14 after three seasons in PRO D2 [second flight]. After their dramatic win over Agen, at the time, their coach Fabrice Ribeyrolles was already anticipating a hell of a fight just to stay afloat.
"Next year is going to be very complicated," he said. "The hardest is yet to come. I'm already worried. I saw Toulon yesterday night… Oh la la, it's going to be something else. But we've made it. That's the main thing."
After two 9th place finishes, in their first seasons back, the club topped the regular season standings in 2016/17 and advanced straight to a semi-final, against Toulon, at Stade Velodrome in Marseille. That game was a tight and tense as you can get - as tight as last May's Champions Cup final against Leinster at the same venue - before Anthony Belleau broke Stade Rochelais hearts with an 80th minute drop goal.
The club missed out on the league playoffs, the following season, and Jono Gibbes arrived from Ulster in 2018. A season later, Gibbes stepped into a Director of Rugby role and Ronan O'Gara, fresh from two Super Rugby titles as Scott Robertson's assistant at Crusaders, came in as head coach.
O'Gara's first season in the role was shortened by the Covid-19 pandemic but he and Gibbes guided the club to the 2021 Top 14 and Champions Cup finals. Fans dreamed of winning an historic double, but Antoine Dupont and Toulouse - in both finals - had other ideas. Gibbes moved on to Clermont and O'Gara was now calling all the big shots.
Sitting at the club's Apivia Parc training facilities, in an industrial part of La Rochelle and not far from the town's small airport, Grégory Alldritt can still recall the first big pre-season meeting for the 2021/22 season.
"I can remember it clearly. When he arrived at that first meeting, he said, 'On the 28th of May, we are winning the Champions Cup'. Yeah, okay. Okay, ROG. Let's play the first game, and we'll see!
"But he was right - game after game, we managed to build something and we arrived in Marseille, again. That first final, against Toulouse, helped us a lot. But we had decided, long before we got to Marseille, that we were going to win it."
It makes Alldritt's recollection all the more powerful as he shares it [picture below] while sitting just metres in front of a club crest that has been newly adorned with that first European Cup 'star'.
Back in Marseille, five months before and with that Champions Cup trophy sitting on a table, between himself and Alldritt, Ronan O'Gara had said:
"The boys were probably a bit shocked at how much I loved the competition... this was something new to them. Once we got a bit of momentum, they could see, 'Now I know what this crazy Irishman is about'!"
A Season With Stade Rochelais
This season, we have the pleasure of tracking the seasons of two rugby clubs with ambitions on dual fronts.
We are following Pat Lam's Bristol Bears and a Stade Rochelais side, led by Ronan O'Gara and Grégory Alldritt, that have their sights on a first ever Top 14 title, while doing all they can to become the first side since Saracens to retain their European crown.
Along the way, we will meet the players, coaches and staff, along the sidelines, in the analysis and treatment rooms and behind the scenes, that pour every bit of themselves into making the club the very best version of itself. We also want to hear from fans of both clubs, and the reporters charged with tracking their every high, low and slogs in between.
The second player interview I had, on my trip to La Rochelle, was South African winger Dillyn Leyds, who is now into his third season with the club. His favourite part of the club's Champions Cup triumph, he says, was sitting in the airport in the early hours of the Sunday morning, as the squad waited on a flight to bring them home.
They were away from the mad scenes around Stade Velodrome, and across Marseille, as Stade Rochelais fans bedecked in yellow and black celebrated a huge, huge win. It was just the wider squad and their newly won trophy, with some beers, some background music and some Uber Eats, sharing memories of the game, and season, just gone.
In those quieter moments of reflection, and satisfaction, before they would get to the harbour and experience the wild scenes of celebration, comes the motivation to go and do it all again.
"We've got a couple of really big names in rugby, and superstars," reflects Leyds, "but, at the end of the day, it's all about the collective and guys just stepping up to the plate, and grinding it out for one another. Going the extra mile for your mate, too."