La Rochelle’s Champions Cup triumph underlines strength of French rugby | Robert Kitson

If there is one lesson to emerge from this European club rugby season it is the importance of ambition. As recently as eight years ago both this weekend’s champion teams, La Rochelle and Lyon, were together in the second tier of French rugby with their noses pressed to the Top 14 glass. Without the incentive of promotion, they would still be on the outside looking in.

Along with Exeter Chiefs they offer hope to wannabes everywhere, living proof that rugby growth is about more than jealously guarding the status quo. The overall commercial gateau may be larger in France, where municipal ownership of stadiums is a significant factor, but the trend is increasingly pronounced. French rugby at all levels continues to boom while the domestic game in England and Wales battles to remain solvent.

La Rochelle have also underlined another fundamental truth: that adversity can make teams and people stronger. This time last year Ronan O’Gara’s squad were downcast losers against Toulouse in Europe’s showpiece fixture and were beaten in the Top 14 final as well. Now they are top dogs, having chewed up Leinster’s dream of modern European dominance.

O’Gara and his players unquestionably deserve much credit: this was one of the more dramatic chases in these parts since Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in French Connection II. As he explained to BT Sport’s Craig Doyle (no relation) afterwards, O’Gara had pored over the footage of Leinster’s knockout games in Galway and Leicester and put together an 80-minute strategy he truly believed would deliver.

“Those games gave me enough ammunition to work with,” revealed O’Gara, having stressed to his squad the importance of not standing off Leinster defensively and going harder still in the final 20 minutes. “They’re very strong in the Aviva but thankfully this game was in Marseille. We had ample opportunities to jump ship, particularly at 18-10 down having just had a yellow card, but teams with bottle, belief and a vision find a way to win. I’m very proud of their mental resolve. This is the start of something special, I hope.”

Having seen his men score three tries to nil and repeat their trick of overturning a half-time deficit, as they also managed against Leinster in last year’s semi-final, it can already be said with confidence that O’Gara is a coach rapidly going places. This outcome further confirmed what longtime colleagues such as his assistant coach Donnacha Ryan have long known. “This all starts with Rog. His work ethic is incredible and I have no doubt he has the potential to do whatever [job] he wants to do.” Which is exactly what a range of other clubs and Test nations far beyond the Atlantic coast will now be thinking.

Joel Sclavi shows his delight at the final whistle.
Joel Sclavi shows his delight at the final whistle. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Having grown up in a tough school in Munster as a player, O’Gara has displayed the courage and self-awareness to head overseas and educate himself in high-performing environments in both hemispheres. “He has been a success at Racing, Crusaders and now La Rochelle,” continues Ryan. “It is not an accident that has happened. For him if he has his mind set on something then he will achieve it.” Not the least of his skills has been instilling a similar unswerving belief in others, particularly at a club that had never played Champions Cup rugby before 2017. Convincing them they really could compete on two fronts took O’Gara a while.

“You’ve got all sorts of nationalities, you’re speaking in pidgin French and they’re looking at you going, ‘Why should we believe you, coach?’ I’m like, ‘Stay with me here, we can do this.’ Once we got a bit of momentum you could see them thinking, ‘I can see what this crazy Irishman is talking about. Maybe we can have a go at both.’” It clearly helps to have players of the relentless calibre and power of Grégory Alldritt and the giant Australian Will Skelton, who has now won Champions Cup finals against Leinster with two different clubs. The Leinster flanker Josh van der Flier has been crowned Europe’s player of the year but, when it came to the crunch, the La Rochelle pack ground down their counterparts to the point where the decisive try, scored by a sniping Arthur Retière with just over a minute left to play, was no less than O’Gara’s side deserved.

The ripple effect could be considerable, and not just for Leinster, whose cloak of invincibility has been abruptly removed. Johnny Sexton has had many great days in his career and contributed 18 points here but, at almost 37, this was a chastening disappointment that would age anyone.

Can he really bounce back and deliver World Cup glory for Ireland? And might O’Gara’s tactical triumph also be the way to wrong-foot some of the world’s other leading sides? The watching England head coach Eddie Jones will not have been alone in pondering whether this muscular blueprint might yet bear fruit in next year’s Six Nations and at the subsequent World Cup.

On the flipside it is not impossible that England will run into the formidable Skelton on their summer tour to Australia while the task of stopping motivated French sides in France grows ever tougher. And, with Jones stepping aside late next year, can the Rugby Football Union simply sit back and watch a five-star general like O’Gara be snapped up by another major rival? Having propelled “La Rog-chelle” to the summit, it will be fascinating to see what the exiled Munster mastermind does next.


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