VIictor Vito, the influential former All Black from La Rochelle, laughs as he identifies the biggest change at the club since it first settled on France’s Atlantic coast five years ago. “When I got here, the guys were smoking in the locker room corner,” he recalls happily. “Now at least they drive somewhere else to do it.”
Welcome to the most interesting team in European rugby at the moment. In its 123 years of existence, the proud men of the Stade Rochelais have failed to gain anything, their profile as visibly high as that of the German submarines whose presence ensured that the city was the last in France to be liberated in 1945.
Now here they are, in the quarter-finals of the first European tournament for the first time and also second in the Top 14, with the former Munster and Irishman Ronan O’Gara cajoling them from the coaches’ area. “Since Ronan came here, he has asked the same question: ‘Why not us?’” Says Vito, who won 33 caps and shared two World Cup wins with New Zealand. “It is simply a definite competitor. I’m sure he was like that when he played, but he’s so keen to win ”.
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 least: “It hurts me to see a high-fives in the streets and the idea that we will get there. there ‘eventually’. I want to win things now. Hopefully, we are eliminating that limited ambition bit by bit. ”With the club’s New Zealand rugby director, Jono Gibbes, once from Leinster, traveling to Clermont this summer and O’Gara just pledged to stay for three more years, the helm will soon be yours alone.
Mix it all up – cunning training, the gang of high-quality French international players, a capable club president in Vincent Merling, and a fierce regional heritage – and you have the potential for the same magic potion that has peaked Munster and Exeter to European success. previous. That’s not to say that a strong Leinster team won’t stand a chance at Stade Marcel-Deflandre, named after the former club president executed by the Nazis as leader of the resistance in 1944, but the Irish province will face a convincing fusion of power and rhythm.
Saracens fans already know the skill of the giant Will Skelton, size 18ft and all, while the equally massive Uini Atonio has long been a club legend. Excellent wing Kevin Gourdon is another key presence, as is France’s No.8 Grégory Alldritt and notable Levani Botia, equally forceful in the center or behind. Even O’Gara, who won 128 games for Ireland, says he has to watch out if he’s refereeing in training and the latter is roaring.
Yet it is the collective fluidity of La Rochelle’s attacking game that sets them apart at their best. The KBA (Keep the Ball Alive) mantra that O’Gara, 44, adopted during his instructive coaching spell with the Crusaders in New Zealand
it is now almost as popular locally as the sun-drenched Île de Ré. “How we attack with our forwards, the kind of lines where we try to connect with the runners on the baseline …
Influence of the crusaders ”, says Vito.
O’Gara enjoys the details of the training: “Make them hum … well, that’s my job, right?” – but Vito says that there is also a lot of psychology to feel good. “He really likes the soft skills of trying to make sure the guys feel good. A thing has begun in which, before all our meetings, everyone says good morning. Before the boys did not say anything, but now it is mandatory to say good morning. He also knows how to laugh at himself. Sometimes you can’t, but most of the time you can share a joke, which makes it very accessible. He definitely relaxed, I would say, going to Christchurch and then coming to us. We are much more jovial in New Zealand than perhaps their generation was when they played. “
When it comes to Gibbes, O’Gara has also brought a defensive rigor and cohesion that was not a strong point before. “You see La Rochelle and you can see that the team knows what it is trying to do. That was Ronan’s main role. La Rochelle, traditionally, was not a really heavy team on defense. The club’s DNA was to move the ball around the park. When they didn’t have the ball, it was about minimizing the damage. Now defense has become a really powerful weapon for this team. That’s a huge credit to Ronan and what he’s done. “
Ironically, Covid has also helped bring together a diverse and multicultural team, assisted by family barbecues and a few beers. “One good thing about Covid is that we have been forced to do this [La Rochelle] our family, ”says Vito. “It was a great thing for a small team like us who probably needed a very good reason to join.”
Gibbes reveals that a revamped hiring policy has now also been implemented. “We want people who want this to happen and people who enjoy improving. We do not need people who are waiting for things to serve them. If you are waiting for things to happen, your whole career will pass you by. “
It’s a long way, Vito acknowledges, from the languid old days. “Guys would do a half session of weights and just leave the field early if they were tired. Now it is such a professional setup. The facilities we have are incredible and the fact that we have started to win games has given us great faith. “
This weekend it will show exactly how far they have to go. As with the French national team, there is enormous potential, but not yet the iron consistency of true champions. In their favor, however, is the rare motivation they collectively share.
“It’s something we talked about as a team from the beginning,” says Vito. “La Rochelle has not won anything. Any silverware, whether it’s from Europe or the Top 14, would be awesome. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but that’s 100% of the goal. We’ve come a long way and something special is cooking. Hopefully we can continue like this this weekend. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism