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top rog Ronan O'Gara: 'The boys would know how I failed in my first Champions Cup final when I was really, really poor'

O’Gara aiming to draw on past experience for La Rochelle’s Euro showdown


La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara

Ronan O’Gara had just spent the previous 15 minutes speaking in French to a room of local journalists when his flow was broken by a question in English that came from a nearby laptop.

Ah, the Ireland mafia are here,” he smiled down the screen, as he switched to his native tongue.

The manner in which he calmly handled the barrage of questions that came his way in French was a brief, yet fascinating, insight into O’Gara the coach.

Culture has always been at the forefront of everything O’Gara stands for, which is why he has fitted in so well at La Rochelle, who have wasted no time in securing his future.

On Saturday, at Twickenham, he will bid to emulate Leo Cullen’s feat of having won the Champions Cup as a player and as a head coach.

Standing in La Rochelle’s way are a star-studded Toulouse side chasing a record fifth title, but O’Gara is not daunted by the scale of the challenge, particularly having been down this road plenty of times as a player.

In 2000, he endured one of his most difficult days when having a poor outing in Munster’s first European final defeat to Northampton.

O’Gara and Munster were back on the same stage two years later, only to fall short again. In 2006, it proved to be a case of third time lucky when Munster finally landed the Holy Grail.

For all that La Rochelle and their passionate supporters are at the beginning of a similar journey, O’Gara is hoping to draw on his experiences as a player to ensure his side do not make the same kind of mistakes he did 21 years ago.

“There is a little bit of that, I think, because for me, a good student, a good player is open to how other people have failed,” O’Gara explained.

“The boys here would know how I failed in my first Champions Cup final when I was really, really poor. So, for them to know that it’s OK to fail and they have seen their coach fail many times, that means that hopefully they can see this guy is vulnerable.

“If the guys feel that they can trust me, then I’m sure they will probably open up a little bit more and that will make for a deeper bond between me and the player.

“I like to create a collaborative atmosphere where you have to respect what your ball players want.”

The emphasis O’Gara has placed on the team means he is genuine when he says he hasn’t allowed himself to dream of what a win on Saturday would mean on a personal level.

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“It doesn’t really come on my radar like that,” the former Ireland out-half insisted.

“For me, Saturday is an opportunity for a group of players from a fantastic club to go and express themselves.

“Yeah, it’s new territory, but it’s very exciting. I think the beauty of rugby and the beauty of sport is that it’s a team effort.

“So, thinking about what it would mean to me would mean taking the focus off what the players do. The players here are brilliant. We have created a good environment, we have created a good buzz.

“The boys are happy to come in and play. I’m lucky to get to work with guys who are some of the best players in France, but also from around the world. It really makes me appreciate my job.”

O’Gara’s reputation has been greatly enhanced on the back of the excellent work he and Jono Gibbes have done with La Rochelle this season.

Their semi-final win over Leinster brought O’Gara’s rise into even sharper focus in Ireland, as his ‘keep the ball alive’ (KBA) approach continues to win admirers.

However, within that expansive mentality is a structure that will be central to La Rochelle’s hopes of upsetting Toulouse this weekend.

“It’s one of the learnings I’ve established – no matter how good the players are, they need things tied up, they need direction and they need someone to calculate their rhythm,” O’Gara added.

“In that regard, you learn from as good a coach as Joe Schmidt where you kind of have – and it’s only lately – that you’ve got to have an eye to pick weaknesses in the opposition and I thought we did that well against Leinster and that was maybe because we had two weeks to go at them.

“We weren’t perfect, far from it, but you’ll never be perfect. That’s OK too.

“You’ve got to give the players a clear direction, most definitely, but within the direction, they’ve got to trust their instincts.”

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