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Rugby

23rd May 2023

“You’re essentially knifing a guy into the stomach” – Ronan O’Gara press conference answer most did not pick up on

Patrick McCarry

Ronan O'Gara

“What’s this mad Irishman at?!”

As he sat at the top table in the winners’ post-match briefing at Aviva Stadium, on Saturday evening, Ronan O’Gara extolled the virtues of his La Rochelle side.

“It was easy to jump ship today, but they did the opposite,” O’Gara marvelled. As rugby reporters, most of us in the room had heard such phrases before but this rang true. The French side had come from 17-0 down, and with their scrumhalf in the sin-bin, to pip Leinster by a point and claim their second Champions Cup on Irish soil.

Even when Romain Sazy declared that these La Rochelle boys were not just teammates but ‘friends and brothers’, we made note and a few of us would later return. That sort of stuff always reads well as a scene-setter.

Knifing someone in the stomach, though? That is a pure ROG-ism and part of what makes him such a fascinating study.

Ronan O'GaraLa Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara celebrates with supporters after the Heineken Champions Cup Final. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

Ronan O’Gara on team selection pains

Even after he had led La Rochelle to Champions Cup glory for the second time in the space of 12 months, Ronan O’Gara never fully let himself go. He was switched on and in coach mode – chatting, encouraging, consoling, observing.

There were some lovely images of O’Gara celebrating on the pitch with his proud mother, Joan, his children, and with the sons of Anthony Foley, his old teammate and friend, Tony and Dan.

He went and spoke to RTE, got soaked in the process by his players, stopped by BT Sport and was then into the press conference. The Ronan O’Gara I know loves Munster more than you’d even think possible and still enjoys ribbing people from Leinster. He has never lost that sense of divilment, too. On Saturday, he had won but he was still in game mode. He had not allowed himself to switch off.

It was odd to hear him getting stuck in about coin tosses and function rooms, especially with little encouragement from reporters. He was not finished there, as he went from our chat to a radio interview and ripped on ‘a small percentage of [Leinster] fans’ that had given him and La Rochelle an unwelcome welcome. Perhaps that is what makes him such a good coach – seeing around corners when others are easing off.

Asked about the sense of team spirit that clearly pushes this La Rochelle team to get the best from themselves, O’Gara provided a fascinating answer that veered from squad selection to guilt over not having a place in the squad for everyone.

“The two boys here [Romain Sazy and Gregory Alldritt] are key, because you need buy-in,” he said. “If you don’t have that from your leaders and senior players, you’re dead.

“What they like is consistency of behaviours. So, people talk about being disciplined today, but that’s talk. Discipline is an act. It’s your preparation, it’s the pictures you give to the referee, and we try to get better every week. We talk about that but we also review it. You can’t be good at everything but we highlight what we want to get better and either get a nod of approval from the boys or, ‘No ROG, I think we should take it a bit this way and do it a bit like that’.

“It’s been good that we’ve had a lot of time off. The boys enjoy the time off but then they train hard. And we put a huge emphasis on bringing in good people. It’s brilliant to say that we don’t have any bad eggs in our squad, which is a crazy thing to say in French rugby. We don’t have any bad eggs and it’s wonderful. And they all want to get better.

“There’s so many fellas gutted. This week was horrible because there’s only 23 that can play, and I’ve got to front those conversations, not the assistant coaches. That takes energy. You’re essentially knifing a guy into the stomach, saying, ‘I don’t have a place for ya’. So, everything he stands for, all his self belief, all his values, you’ve probably just destroyed in 10 seconds of hurt. That hurts me, that hurts him, but we try to make sure that everyone gets a shot. And when the boys have got a shot, most of them have taken their chance and they’ve made the place better.”

At one of his highest coaching moments, Ronan O’Gara was still stewing about the lads that he had to cut from his 23-man squad. The final itself so was thrilling, as well as the coin toss and tunnel fracas storylines, that many outlets did not pick up on this opening of O’Gara’s soul.

There was empathy there, as well as the realisation that he will still need these men if La Rochelle, in the coming weeks, are to add to their Champions Cup success with their first ever Top 14 title.

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