THERE ARE LOTS of things the La Rochelle fans love about Ronan O’Gara.
The two Champions Cup trophies are top of the pile, of course, but there’s also his wonderfully distinctive Cork-accented French.
O’Gara is a Munster and Ireland legend but these days, the fans of Stade Rochelais feel like he’s all theirs. ‘ROG’ has earned huge respect in the beautiful city on the west coast of France by helping to turn the rugby club into winners.
There’s no panic so far this season despite a sluggish start to the campaign and with Leinster visiting for the opening round of the Champions Cup on Sunday, there’s a feeling among the fanbase that things are about to move up a gear for O’Gara’s men.
There’s no doubt he will be firing his players up for the latest bout of what has become an increasingly heated rivalry – one La Rochelle have dominated so far – and his Cork accent will shine through again as he speaks in fluent French.
“We love his accent, especially when he inserts the word ‘f**king’ into his sentences!” says Maxime Collin, who is the president of le Club des Bagnards Rochelais, one of the three supporters clubs attached to La Rochelle.
What the club’s fans are really hoping to see next is a first-ever Top 14 trophy.
Stade Rochelais were two minutes away from that title in last season’s final only for Toulouse’s Romain Ntamack to steal it from their grasp with a stunning winning try.
But the fans who pack out Stade Marcel Deflandre in impressive fashion every single time O’Gara’s men play at home believe the Irishman can lead them one better and continue to challenge in the Champions Cup.
“What we’ve seen since he came to La Rochelle is the team’s capacity to win,” says Janet Trouniac, a member of Agir Avec le XV Rochelais, the biggest of the three supporters clubs.
“There was a project anyway but since he arrived, Ronan really has helped the players and the club to understand that we can win. He has shown us how to actually do it.
“Even if this season has been difficult early on, we’re not panicking at all because we have a lot of confidence in Ronan.”
What happens on the pitch is what matters most to the club’s fans but O’Gara has also connected with them off it since arriving in 2019. They feel great pride in hearing him speak in the media abroad with reverence about the support his team gets in La Rochelle.
The O’Garas live on the nearby island of Île de Ré, a beautiful place where many of the players are based too. It’s easy to have a quiet life there, enjoying your morning coffee in the local bar, and keeping out of the limelight, but O’Gara is certainly not someone who hides himself away, particularly since taking on the top job in 2021.
“When there are different things on in the club, he’ll come and meet us and talk to us,” says Trouniac. “He’s always ready for photos and autographs.
“We see his children, they’re on the side of the pitch after games and they never miss a match. We obviously respect his private life but the whole club is like that in La Rochelle. You meet everybody, they always say hello, shake your hand, have a nice word. It’s a big club but it’s a family club.”
O’Gara has been blown away by the scenes of celebration at the Vieux Port in La Rochelle after each of the Champions Cup titles, with more than half of the city’s 70,000 population turning up to welcome the victors and their silverware home.
Trouniac likens the scenes to the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Bastille Day and there’s no doubt those days helped bond O’Gara to La Rochelle even more strongly.
Both titles came after wins against Leinster in the final, making this Sunday’s pool opener at Stade Marcel Deflandre all the more thrilling.
La Rochelle also beat Leinster in the semi-finals back in 2021 so they’ve certainly had the better of this match-up, a state of affairs that didn’t seem likely in the past when the French side were knocking around in the second-tier Pro D2.
“We have a lot of respect for Leinster, one of the biggest clubs in Europe, made up of probably 75% of the national team squad,” says Collin.
“We would never have imagined, even in our wildest dreams, even playing against this team.
“So imagining beating them in the final twice in a row and the second of them being in their famous stadium. Until recently, that was a utopia.”
O’Gara has had difficulties during his time with La Rochelle too. He has served four touchline suspensions over the last two seasons – a combined total of 20 weeks – for incidents relating to his interactions with match officials.
This Wednesday, O’Gara will face another disciplinary panel after being cited for his behaviour towards the officials at a Top 14 clash with Racing 92 two weekends ago.
O’Gara revealed in his Irish Examiner column last week that he will be strongly opposing the case and he has huge support from La Rochelle fans, who have backed him with every one of these incidents.
“When he’s summoned, we feel a form of injustice,” says Collin.
Trouniac echoes that sentiment, stressing that La Rochelle fans support O’Gara.
“As long as we have results, I don’t think the majority of supporters would be against him for that.”
When a coach gives his “body and soul for the club,” as Collin puts it, and wins big trophies, it’s no surprise the support is so unwavering.
Whatever happens on Wednesday, O’Gara will be determined for his side to lift their season with another win over Leinster this weekend and it would be a shock if they’re not in contention for the Champions Cup and Top 14 titles again at the end of this season.
The 47-year-old has been linked with other jobs in recent years but his contract at La Rochelle runs until 2027 and the fans are hoping he will stick around for the long-term.
“Maybe if he got the opportunity with a national team, perhaps he would go, but we think he’s enjoying life here,” says Trouniac. “The club gives him the players he needs and supports his decisions and they’re behind him.”2023-12-04T20:13:52Z dg43tfdfdgfd