"There's no magic wand. A lot of it starts and finishes with hard work" - Ronan O'Gara
"We had rain for 24 hours, so will hopefully have sun for the next week, so."
When we catch him for a Zoom, Ronan O'Gara is in La Rochelle, the sun is shining and there is a swimming pool, over his shoulder, out the window.
The chat happened a few weeks after he led La Rochelle to their first ever European Cup, and just a week into Ireland's tour of New Zealand. A few days later, he was in the Sky Sports studio and telling everyone, after Ireland lost the First Test 42-19, that Andy Farrell's men could beat the All Blacks at least once.
He headed off on his summer holidays, the day after that last bit of punditry work. Such is life as a Top 14 coach, though, he'll already be back at it at Apivia Parc, the club's centre of excellence and training facilities.
In recent weeks, and in a photoshoot for Benetti Menswear, O'Gara is looking as lean as we have ever seen him. Asked if that is down to a new workout regime, or the stress of trying for European and Top 14 silverware, he responds. "It's a good question; I don't know.
"I'm not training any differently, anyway. I'm doing less, if anything. I need to get back on track and devote a little time to my own training, to be honest with you. I've stopped doing weights. And, by nature, I'm slight as it is, so I need to make sure I pack on a few more kgs."
'They know what the European Cup stands for' - Ronan O'Gara
After getting La Rochelle to the finals of the Top 14 and Champions Cup, in 2021, La Rochelle fell to Toulouse in both deciders. Jonathan Danty arrived from Stade Francais, but O'Gara stuck with mostly the same squad for the 2021/22 season.
They reached the Top 14 semi-finals, but the club's crowning achievement came at Stade Velodrome, in Marseille, as they defeated the heavily favoured Leinster thanks to a late surge and an opportunistic Arthur Retiére try. It secured Stade Rochelais their first ever major trophy, a European Champions Cup.
O'Gara is asked what Leinster players La Rochelle targeted in that final, aside from the obvious talisman - Johnny Sexton. He responds:
"We didn't target Johnny in the final. I think it's important to say that. We had a plan about trying to go after them in certain areas of the pitch.
"Once we had analysed the games against Leicester and Connacht, there were one or two opportunities where, if we were accurate, we were able to exploit. But we scored three tries but, when you look at the video, we'd be disappointed that we left another five potential opportunities out there. They'd be able to say the same, as well, obviously. That's what happens at the highest level.
"In terms of targeting individuals, no. We have a philosophy that we'd be more trying to ensure we have a finely oiled framework that gives boys opportunities to express themselves in the heat of battle."
Following the game, O'Gara had remarked that his players were 'probably a bit shocked at how much I loved' the European Cup. "Once we got a bit of momentum," he added, "they could see, 'Now I know what this crazy Irishman is about'!"
Now that the mountain has been scaled, I ask the former Munster and Ireland star if his players will need convincing about how mighty an achievement it would be to retain their trophy.
"No. Sure they've tasted victory now. They know what the European Cup stands for. That's a lot more powerful now, than actually saying it. They don't need any more words.
"They've experienced a winning dressing room in Marseille. They know what that feeling is. They're very privileged. It's a very difficult thing to do. Obviously, it will be very difficult to repeat it next year, but that's the plan and that's what you chase. It doesn't mean that we're going to get frightened or overwhelmed by that. It starts at '0' again in August."
La Rochelle is HEAVING!
⚫️🟡 🏆 pic.twitter.com/lNRya3O8rD
— Pat McCarry (@patmccarry) May 29, 2022
Building on European success
One of the best calling cards for potential La Rochelle targets were the scenes at the town's heaving, jubilant port when the players arrived on an open-top bus with the European Cup trophy to show off.
I have spoken to a couple of New Zealand and South African players in recent weeks, and they are well aware of the scenes. Seeing a whole town flood out onto the streets, in such a picturesque setting, may have nudged several players to check in with their agents to see if La Rochelle could do with their services.
"Yeah, it was obviously the same as anything," O'Gara muses as he looks back on those wild, joyous scenes. "It's the same as winning a Grand Slam - you don't know how big it really is until afterwards.
"La Rochelle had never won anything, but we always talked about what the port would be like if we got a taste for it. But, yeah, it blew us away. It was hugely inspiring.
"You'd be very, very proud of the players. You'd be proud of the city, proud of the supporters. The home atmosphere is very special at [Stade Marcel] Deflandres. At the minute, there's a great vibe to it.
"But you can see, the same as Munster, it doesn't last. So you have to make plans for the short-term, medium term and long-term. With that, the most important thing is keeping your performances where they need to be, and that will be the goal, starting next season."
La Rochelle have lost Victor Vito to retirement and Ihaia West to Toulon, but they have recruited wisely. Ultan Dillane has arrived from Connacht, Teddy Thomas has come on down from Racing 92 and the brilliant Samoa Ulupano Seuteni is a great backline addition.
Learning from Joe Schmidt
Back in 2017, when he was a few years into his coaching career at Racing 92, Ronan O'Gara was invited in by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt to gain some international experience.
Looking back, five years on, O'Gara fondly recalls 'a brilliant week'. "His command of his staff and his playing group was very impressive," the Cork native says.
"He ran interesting training sessions - really detailed, really organised - and he was very impressive. Usually, you are aware of weeks going quickly, but that entire week just whizzed by. I was tired going to bed as I was in soak mode, trying to soak up as much as I could from a brilliant coach. It was fascinating.
"What was also evident was, he let the players own a lot of it. There might be a misconception out there that he likes to control everything, but I didn't see that. I saw the leaders on the team taking control, and driving different walk-throughs, at different periods of the week. Training was intense, but it was enjoyable. His meetings were short, sharp and interesting."
'Maybe I'm supposed to be a little bit quieter at away games'
One aspect of coaching where Joe Schmidt and Ronan O'Gara may differ is getting into it with opposition coaches. While Schmidt could drop a killer pre- or post-match comment, O'Gara has traded some words with opposition coaches along the sidelines.
O'Gara has, in the past, been sent to the stands for getting far too animated on the sidelines but he had been on a cool streak, until the business end of the Top 14 season. In the space of a few weeks, he got into it with Bordeaux' coach Christophe Urios [getting a slap for his troubles] and Ugo Mola of Toulouse.
"It's part of what happens in France," says O'Gara, "the managers have the right to be down by the sideline.
"But, sure, you're looking at two incidents over 34 games, or whatever. It's going to happen, and it will happen again.
"It's just those two away games. Maybe I'm supposed to be a little bit quieter at away games, and not encourage my team. It's all par for the course, really, in Top 14."
The end of next season will see Ronan O'Gara rack up 10 years in various coaching roles. Many Munster and Ireland fans would love to see him return home to take up one of those two big coaching jobs. Still only 45, O'Gara is not done with La Rochelle mission.
On his key coaching philosophy, he mulls for a moment or two before saying, "It's your consistencies if behaviour that define you and, for me, that's very important, in terms of how you set up your team.
"You have to have a few key messages to your group, and you need to keep reinforcing that. For me, it's a journey you go on together. You don't need to separate your playing group and your staff.
"It's very important that you create a vision for your group, and that you get buy-in from your players. But, for me, the great thing that I learned in New Zealand is, there's no magic wand. A lot of it starts and finishes with hard work."
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