Victor Vito, La Rochelle’s influential former All Black, laughs as he identifies the biggest change at the club since he first pitched up on France’s Atlantic coast five years ago. “When I got here guys were smoking round the corner of the changing room,” he recalls cheerfully. “Now at least they drive somewhere else to do it.”
Bienvenu to the most interesting team in European rugby right now. In their 123 years of existence, the proud men of Stade Rochelais have failed to win anything, their profile about as visibly high as the German U-boats whose presence ensured the city was the last in France to be liberated in 1945.
Now here they are, in the last four of the premier European tournament for the first time and also second in the Top 14, with the former Munster and Ireland fly‑half Ronan O’Gara cajoling them from the coaching box. “Ever since Ronan got here he’s asked the same question: ‘Why not us?’” says Vito, who won 33 caps and shared in two World Cup triumphs for New Zealand. “He’s just an ultimate competitor. I’m sure he was like that when he played but he just wants to win so bad.”
As O’Gara put it in one of his thoughtful columns for the Irish Examiner, reaching the knockout stages of tournaments is, for him, the bare minimum: “It does my head in to see high-fiving in the streets and the notion that we will get there ‘eventually’. I want to win things now. Hopefully, we are eliminating that limited ambition bit by bit.” With the club’s Kiwi director of rugby, Jono Gibbes, once of Leinster, off to Clermont this summer and O’Gara having just committed to staying for three more years, the tiller will soon be his alone.
Mix it all together – the canny coaching, the posse of top‑quality French international players, a can‑do club president in Vincent Merling and a fierce regional heritage – and you have the potential for the same magic potion that has hoisted Munster and Exeter to previous European success. That is not to say a strong Leinster team have no chance at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre – named after the former club president executed by the Nazis as a resistance leader in 1944 – but the Irish province will be up against a compelling fusion of power and pace.
Saracens’ fans already know about the ability of the giant Will Skelton – size 18 feet and all – while the similarly massive Uini Atonio has long been a club legend. The excellent flanker Kevin Gourdon is another key presence, as is France’s first-choice No 8 Grégory Alldritt and the remarkable Levani Botia, equally hard-hitting at centre or in the back row. Even O’Gara, who won 128 caps for Ireland, says he has to watch out if he is refereeing in training and the latter is thundering around.
It is the collective fluency of La Rochelle’s attacking game, though, that distinguishes them at their best. The KBA (Keep the Ball Alive) mantra that O’Gara, 44, embraced during his instructive coaching spell with the Crusaders in New Zealand
is now almost as popular locally as the delightfully sun-soaked Île de Ré. “How we attack with our forwards, the sort of lines where we’re trying to connect with runners in the backline … a lot of it has a
Crusader influence,” says Vito.
O’Gara relishes the detail of coaching – “Getting them humming … well that’s my job, isn’t it?” – but Vito says there is also plenty of feelgood psychology. “He’s very much into the soft skills of trying to make sure the boys are feeling good. He’s started a thing where, before all our meetings, everyone says good morning. Before guys would say nothing but now it’s obligatory to say good morning back. He knows how to laugh at himself as well. Sometimes he can’t but most of the time he’s able to share a joke, which makes him very approachable. He’s definitely loosened up, I would say, going to Christchurch and then coming to us. We’re a lot more jovial in New Zealand than maybe his generation were when they were playing.”
As far as Gibbes is concerned, O’Gara has also brought a defensive rigour and cohesion that was previously not a strong point. “You watch La Rochelle and you can see the team know what they’re trying to do. That was Ronan’s main role. La Rochelle, traditionally, weren’t a really defensive heavy team. The DNA of the club was to move the ball from all over the park. When they didn’t have the ball it was kind of about minimising the damage. Now defence has become a really strong weapon of this team. That’s a massive credit to Ronan and what he’s done.”
Covid, ironically, has further helped to unite a diverse, multicultural squad, assisted by family barbecues and a few beers. “One good thing about Covid is that we’ve been forced to make this [La Rochelle] our family,” says Vito. “It’s been a great thing for a little team like us that probably needed a really good reason to come together.”
Gibbes reveals a revamped recruitment policy is also now in place. “We want people who want to make it happen and people who enjoy improving. We don’t need people who are waiting for things to be served up to them. If you’re waiting for things to happen, your whole career will pass you by.”
It is a far cry, Vito acknowledges, from the languid old days. “Guys would do half a weights session and just walk off the field early if they were tired. Now it’s such a professional setup. The facilities we’ve got are amazing and the fact we’ve started to win games has given us great belief.”
This weekend will show exactly how far they still have to go. As with the French national side, there is massive potential but not yet the iron-clad consistency of true champions. In their favour, though, is the rare motivation they collectively share.
“It’s something we spoke about as a team right from the get-go,” says Vito. “La Rochelle have won nothing. Any silverware – whether it be Europe or the Top 14 – would be amazing. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves but that’s 100% the goal. We’ve come a long way and something special is cooking up. Hopefully we can keep that going this weekend.”