Ronan O'Gara stitches Leinster up again and adds extra spice with post-match comments
This was a man completely in his element. Back home and back on the big stage again.
There was a picture from 2009 getting shared around a lot again, on Saturday evening, even though Johnny Sexton was not involved [as a player, at least] against La Rochelle. It has the iconic image of him roaring at Ronan O'Gara after a Leinster try against Munster, at Croke Park.
That moment is seen by many as the passing of the torch from one legendary Irish outhalf to the next. The snatching of the torch, more like.
It is fair to say, both men were not overly fond of each other when Sexton was breaking into the Ireland ranks, and turning heads with Leinster. Perfectly understandable, of course, as both men were gunning for the Ireland 10 jersey and both have deep wells of self-belief.
It took Sexton moving to Paris for a two-season stint with Racing 92 that changed things. O'Gara was there as kicking coach, initially, then on a wider brief as time progressed. The pair got closer and, no longer scrapping for one starting spot, formed a warm bond. Still, the rivalry will never fully wisp away.
It is for that reason - along with the stature and sway of both men - that it was somehow all about Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton again after La Rochelle beat Leinster to successfully defend the Champions Cup they won in Marseille, last season.
Ronan O'Gara on 'small percentage of Leinster fans'
"You have data for everything," Ronan O'Gara observed in the post-match press conference, "but you don’t have data for character."
La Rochelle found themselves 17-0 down after 12 minutes and were 23-7 behind after 37 minutes. They scored through UJ Seuteni before half-time and dominated the second half to win 27-26 and leave Leinster heartbroken.
"We don’t have any bad eggs in the squad, which is a crazy thing to say in French rugby," O'Gara reflected.
In the lead-up to the match, from the moment La Rochelle monstered Exeter in the semi-finals, the Cork native has played it to perfection. He started off by saying how much tougher a slog the Top 14 was, compared to the United Rugby Championship [with its' country-hopping format]. Those comments had Leinster answering questions and almost having to defend themselves in their next press briefing.
O'Gara then spent the next couple of weeks stressing that Leinster were the team to beat and the side with everything going in their favour - final in their home ground, ability to rest and rotate players, home comforts and perks for players and staff.
Little old La Rochelle, with their not so little player salary budget, were coming to Dublin to take on mighty, "world-class" Leinster.
Then there was the storm in a tea-cup over James Ryan being a couple of minutes late to the pre-game coin toss. The French side, and their coach, were clinging to all slights - real or perceived - to whip themselves into a tizzy.
It helped. They were in the lion's den, they told themselves. Up against it, but still fighting.
Even after they had their arm raised in victory, O'Gara had some stuff he wanted to get off his chest. In a chat with Aisling O'Reilly from Off The Ball, he remarked:
"There's a small percentage of their fans I wouldn’t have much time for, that made themselves [known] on the approach and I think that sparked up our boys for the battle."
Johnny Sexton having his say
And then there was the Johnny Sexton side of the story.
Leinster were always going to miss him but he would not have been foremost in many thoughts as Ross Byrne & Co. raced into that 17-0 lead.
When the tide turned, though, the TV cameras were flicking back with increasing regularity to the injured captain in the stands. Jamison Gibson-Park had told us, ahead of the final, that Sexton was trying to give the team space but did add:
"Obviously, if he feels he needs to, he'll chip in."
Sexton was heading to the Leinster dressing room, at half-time, to chip in when he was involved in a heated exchange of words with some of the La Rochelle team. This happens more often than you may realise in professional sport, especially the ones bubbling over with testosterone.
We then had the sight of Sexton, in his team suit, exchanging words with referee Jaco Peyper after the game. It's safe to say they were disagreeing over a couple of key moments.
Sexton is unlikely to ever play for Leinster again. He will retire after the World Cup and this Leinster side - even though Sexton would not want it - does not strike me as a team to roll out a player in a league fixture for a token goodbye.
The World Cup is now the focus of a stack of these Leinster players, including Sexton.
Do not be surprised, though, if Sexton looks to face off against O'Gara again, this time in the coaching arena.
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