RugbyMatch Reaction

‘We didn’t hit our stride’: Ronan O’Gara disappointed by La Rochelle performance

Leo Cullen desperately hoping a huge home crowd will be drawn to Croke Park in three weeks’ time

“Très dur,” were the first words uttered by Ronan O’Gara at his post-match press conference. “Très, très dur.” Very, very hard, he emphasised. But although evidently downbeat after his side’s two-year reign in the Champions Cup came to a crushingly decisive end, he was suitably magnanimous.

“It’s easier to move on,” said O’Gara, whatever about accepting it. “If it’s a close one, you always have a lot more regrets but if you have a small bit of cop on, you could see that the dominant team was in blue.

“They were shaper to everything and they made it difficult for us and their rush defence worked well and in the first 70, I don’t think we won a breakdown penalty bar the kick-off that we took.”

O’Gara highlighted Ryan Baird’s try within four minutes of the restart to cancel out La Rochelle’s maul try in first-half overtime as the key turning point in the match.


“We were quite happy going in just 10 points down at half-time considering the way the game unfolded. But to give them a soft score, obviously they executed well, but it was quite soft for them to go out to 17 again. It killed our momentum and we were chasing the game from that.

“And then the last 30, we were inaccurate in a lot of our basics. There is no place for that in quarter-finals, so we must get better.”

There was always a chance that the trek to South Africa for last week’s Round of 16 win over the Stormers in Cape Town, despite reducing their travel load by decamping to Cork from Monday, would take a toll on La Rochelle’s energy levels.

But when offered this as a mitigating factor, O’Gara declined it. “That would be making an excuse. Maybe with hindsight it may have been a factor, but the better team won. The better team won. And that’s what sport is about.

“I have been lucky enough to be here as a victorious coach, so when it doesn’t work for you, you can’t blame the ref, you can’t blame your own players, sometimes you just have to go ‘Well done to Leinster, they had a good plan, they executed it well and they kept us at arm’s length quite comfortably throughout the 80 minutes.’”

The 40-13 loss constituted La Rochelle’s heaviest defeat in the competition, but O’Gara was not especially shocked by the scale of this beating.

“No, I said before the game in an interview that I think we could put a score on these or else we could take a score because that’s the fascinating thing about coaching my boys.

“They are a special bunch and they are capable of playing incredible rugby, but today, we didn’t hit our stride.

“There are probably a number of reasons for that but 40-13 sounds like a hammering, and it is a hammering, but at the same time, it’s only three tries against a Leinster team where you look how many opportunities we butchered as consolation scores, not as real scores, towards the end.

“I think, when it was in the 10-point zone, the game was always in doubt, but once it passed that, it’s too far-fetched to think you are going to be winning the game against a quality outfit.”

Meanwhile, Leo Cullen is desperately hoping a huge home crowd will be drawn to Croke Park in three weeks’ time for Leinster’s Champions Cup semi-final against Northampton on the first weekend in May.

Such was the allure of a grudge meeting with La Rochelle, who recorded a second successive win in the final over Leinster last May, that it became a 51,700 sell-out capacity crowd. But this upcoming semi-final will certainly be a harder sell than was the case for the 2009 meeting between Leinster and Munster, when Leo Cullen captained his team in blue to a win.

“We have a three-week lead in to a semi-final and it would be amazing to get a big crowd in Croke Park because you couldn’t take that for granted. There’s a lot competition for attention, as we know.

“That’s what I mean. We’re so appreciative of the people that were there. It means a hell of a lot to the team. Hopefully that stays strong and the crowd, but that’s a few weeks away.”

But such was the focus on beating La Rochelle that the carrot of a Croke Park semi-final had not been discussed much.

‘It hasn’t been talked about a lot and that’s honest to God. Even in the dressingroom after the game we didn’t talk about it. The odd question here and there over the last while, is this a chance and I know a lot of positive work has gone on to get this game on there. But you have to get to the game first. You can’t get too far in front.

“Now we have a game to go to which will be amazing. The first thing is watch the game, see who we playing against and put a plan together for the game itself. In terms of the occasion part, we felt very fortunate as that group of players at that moment in time [in 2009] because there was a real provincial rivalry at that time.”

“Nobody gave us a chance in 2009 to win that game but it’s a different moment in time now for the group of players. It’s amazing to get that opportunity to do it because it’s such an iconic venue in Irish society. Not just sport. An amazing opportunity for this group, but we have a trip to South Africa next week to get excited by, and then we’ll start making a plan for that semi-final, where it is.

The squad which Cullen takes to South Africa for intervening URC games against the Lions and the Stormers in Johannesburg and Cape Town is likely to be front loaded, as in any frontliners will play in the first game rather than the second.

“We’re leaving on Tuesday so we need to get some names into the airlines to get on the plane for starters, but listen we’ll see how everyone pulls through and make a plan.

“The good news is we have got guys who are itching to play as well so that’s the important bit, making sure we have guys who are chomping at the bit and waiting for an opportunity.

“We’ll make some calls and whoever goes out there will hopefully represent the team and the group well.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times