Ronan O’Gara slotted in seamlessly to bring La Rochelle’s plan for European success to fruition
There is an old Irish joke where a hopelessly lost tourist asks an old man by the side of the road “Can you tell me how to get to Dublin?” After a few minutes thinking, the man replies, “Well, you don’t want to start from here.”
If you were a rugby coach or player in 2014 and wanted to be in the city of Marseille participating on the European finals weekend eight years later, you definitely wouldn’t have started in the second division of the French Championship. But 2014 was the year that the European Challenge Cup winners Lyon and Champions Cup winners La Rochelle were both promoted to the Top 14.
The rise of both to the top echelons of Europe are not just interesting case studies in how to run a club properly, but also a reflection of some great people who started, continued or finished the job.
Leinster have had an incredible run of success under CEO Mick Dawson, who retires this summer, and his leadership has been consistent and outstanding. In France the CEO is called the president. In 2015 I was in my third year in Grenoble when I got a call from the Lyon president Yann Roubert looking for a secret meeting. Lyon were going straight back down to Pro D2 but Roubert wasn’t going to be demoralised or thrown off his plan.
He had a 10-year project to bring Lyon to the top of French and European rugby and over the course of two hours he presented it in detail and with unwavering belief that if they followed the process they would arrive. The potential for Lyon, he explained, was enormous. They had 60,000 licenced rugby players within 100kms of the city and 1.5 million people living within an hour’s drive. The parent company, GL Events, had a turnover globally of over €1bn and they were willing to invest in a new stadium, training facility and players in the short term to be successful in the medium and long term.
I wasn’t interested in leaving Grenoble to join a club in Pro D2 (hindsight is wonderful) but I have stayed in touch with Yann, and kept a close eye on Lyon’s progress ever since. I was delighted to see them beat the three-time Champions Cup winners Toulon convincingly in the Challenge Cup final. They have three more years to complete their top objective.
The La Rochelle president is Vincent Merling, an entrepreneur who supplies a wide range of enterprises in the south west of France with their automatic coffee machines. He started to play for La Rochelle in 1967 as a 17-year-old back-rower and has been there ever since in various roles. At 41, he became president in 1991 after the club ran into big financial difficulties and incredibly in 22 years has only worked with five head coaches — Jean-Pierre Ellisalde, Serge Milhas, Patrice Collazo, Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara. That shows that having stability and trust in the leadership can be far more beneficial than the constant chopping and changing of coaches we see in other sports.
Merling is famous in France for his initiative, ‘Growing Together’, which in 2015 got 500 sponsors to commit to supporting La Rochelle on their journey to the top.
The day I marked them down as a coming force was when Patrice Collazo decided to move on. They identified Jono Gibbes as their preferred candidate, who was coaching Ulster in Belfast. Jono had done his stint in France with Clermont, was going home to coach the Waikato Chiefs and was likely to be on the coaching ticket for the All Blacks after the 2019 World Cup.
Gibbes wasn’t engaging with La Rochelle’s flirtations as his mind was made up. Next thing, one Wednesday morning (Ulster’s day off) Gibbes was told there would be a private jet waiting in Belfast airport for him and his family to bring them down to La Rochelle to meet the president and fly them back that same night. Whether it was the project, the salary or the opportunity to live on the beautiful island of île de Ré that sealed it I don’t know (probably all three) but they got their man and have been incredible successful at getting their targets ever since.
The current squad is essentially still the one Gibbes built but it’s O’Gara’s game plan. This season Rog brought two foreigners to his coaching team but both Donnacha Ryan and Gurthrö Steenkamp speak French, which is a huge bonus. Off the field Rog, has recruited incredibly well for next season, especially in the hotly contested market for young French talent.
There has been huge focus on Rog since he started coaching and you would swear he was the one kicking goals or making tackles, not the players. But he is a fascinating character and he engages your interest, whether you are in his company or you are watching him from a distance. He is highly charismatic, emotionally intelligent and has massive self-belief. He is also a very kind person and looks out for people. When we did our French coaching badges together he and Jess insisted I stayed with them for the 12 weeks rather than in the onsite accommodation. With a young family it would have been easier to leave me where I was but they insisted every month.
They say the best coaches are like Magpies and one of the things we found out last week was that Rog used the story of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans as motivation. They were to be the first to scale the summit of Mount Everest in 1953 but just 330 feet from the top Evans couldn’t go further and they both turned back for their own safety. Bourdillon always regretted the decision. Rog urged his team not to be 330 feet short against Leinster and have to live with those regrets forever.
This type of ‘theming’ isn’t new. I remember in 2009 ahead of the Heineken Cup final in Edinburgh Michael Cheika used a story from a training facility in Florida that hosted elite military and sporting squads for team building activities. They ask the teams to complete a 5km run in under a very achievable time. You have to run 2.5 km, touch the white fence, and return. However, the participants are warned, watch out for the wild boar that sometimes come close to the track, as they are dangerous. The military teams tended to hear the wild boar sound, crouch down, assess the situation and realise that it’s just a set of speakers being controlled remotely and they run on, touch the white fence and complete the mission. The sports or corporate teams tend to hear the fake noise and run back to base. The analogy for us was not to be distracted with all the outside noise — tickets, family, friends — and to touch the white fence, which for us was win the trophy.
The Crusaders have been using theming for the last two decades. Rog’s head coach there Scott Robertson is a massive fan and has taken it to a new level. Rog has leaned on another Irishman to help him in this area. There is a former Clongowes student called David Sharkey who is an English teacher in the Hampton school in England, but also has his own business helping organisations and teams to use theming to help them succeed.
Sharkey and many who use this tool firmly believe a well-designed theme can create connections that resonate and can help to forge character in ways that are hard to create otherwise. Sharkey started his consultancy with La Rochelle last season and having lost two finals, they knew the pain of not getting to the summit.
I can see lots of teams in Ireland and elsewhere using Everest as their theme next season just like we saw many teams sweep the dressing rooms when it was revealed the All Blacks did it. It’s not the main factor but just one of many important factors or tools. A good theme without a good team will lose regardless.
There are always people behind the bright lights who play a huge role in any big success. Roubert and Merling as presidents are at the top of the pyramid but there people in every organisation like Sharkey who are adding their skills and smart leaders like Rog give them the space to flourish.