Johnny Sexton leads Leinster against La Rochelle and his old team-mate and rival Ronan O’Gara
Past and present Ireland No. 10s clash in the Heineken European Champions Cup Final on Saturday and Ronan O’Gara believes Johnny Sexton used the pain of missing out on roster for the latest Lions tour to relaunch his career.
The former Test team-mates and squad rivals hold the key to the showdown between Leinster and La Rochelle in blistering heat on the Mediterranean, at Stade Velodrome. While the county of Dublin is an obvious favourite, former Munster icon O’Gara presides over a La Rochelle side that can pose a threat based on terrifying physicality and a reckless sense of attacking adventure.
But he knows that Sexton, Leinster’s veteran captain and fly-half maestro, is once again operating at the peak of his ability after proving to be a fading force last year. “Twelve months ago, Johnny didn’t play as well as he does now,” O’Gara said.
Johnny Sexton (left) and Ronan O’Gara (right) will face each other in the European Champions Cup final
He has a theory as to what caused the 36-year-old’s personal transformation, adding, “I understand Johnny’s mindset; that he is a competitor. That’s the understatement of the season! He likes rugby. It’s such a great game, so you play it as long as you can. If you’re good, you keep going and he stays comfortable in his position for the rest.
“But I think it’s fueled too. There wasn’t much agreement about not making the Lions tour, but that would have hurt him deeply. So now it’s another example of his excellent resilience and he’s coming back.
“He has made changes to his game. He has always been a good passer of the ball, but now he has become a (running) threat again. You saw in the semi-final against Toulouse, he can run very well, pass well, kick well and he is very good at seeing opportunities before other people see them. That’s what a lot of great tens do – and he sees things faster than other people.”
Former England head coach Stuart Lancaster is at the center of Leinster’s imperious march towards a fifth European conquest. He has also been a major influence on Sexton since arriving in the county in 2016, paying tribute to the playmaker’s enduring class.
As former teammates, O’Gara knows Sexton very well and praised his talent and resilience
“Jonny has a lot of qualities that I really admire,” Lancaster said. “One is his competitiveness and his desire to win and hold everyone accountable to the standards he expects of himself. He has an incredible knowledge of the game through years of experience. Probably his biggest standout feature is his ability to see the photo a split second before others see it. It can frustrate him sometimes when others haven’t seen the same!’
Sexton’s innate vision and sense of the game have helped make Leinster a gloriously fluid team, but O’Gara has had a similar influence on La Rochelle as a coach. He has quickly built an impressive resume after stints at Racing 92 – where he briefly coached Sexton, and the Crusaders in New Zealand – where he honed his reputation far from home.
O’Gara recently expressed an interest in succeeding Eddie Jones as England head coach and would be a race candidate. Lancaster is impressed by his work.
Ambitious O’Gara has expressed interest in succeeding Eddie Jones as England head coach
“You have to admire any coach who is willing to move his family to France, then to New Zealand and back to France in the quest to develop himself,” he said. “We’ve met and talked a few times and I’ve coached him a few times.
“The feedback from the Crusaders has been nothing but positive about his contribution. That a coach in the Northern Hemisphere goes there and makes such an impact is testament to him.
“We’ve got Michael Ala’alatoa here who was with the Crusaders at the time and he said the impact ROG had was huge. He is competitive, he has a great knowledge of the game and like Johnny, he has that open mind to want to learn and get better. They are great qualities for coaches.’
The respect is mutual. When asked what sets Leinster apart, O’Gara said: “I admire the way they play the game, in a fast, very creative way. They have a very good player base, but you can see their coaches getting the best out of their players. I think they challenge their players in all aspects of the game and try to make them complete players, and they look really, really good.
Former England head coach Stuart Lancaster, who now heads Leinster, is impressed with O’Gara
“I’m fascinated to see how we take on Leinster, because they hum, make appearances and spit out the opposition easily. You just hope, with maybe the profiles we have, that they’ll have a harder time against us.’
Leinster certainly struggled against La Rochelle and their massive forwards last season, when they lost a semi-final to them 32-23 at Stade Marcel Deflandre. So while they are widely tipped to win on Saturday, Lancaster remains resolutely cautious about their prospects.
“We’ve won five trophies, but we’ve also lost in semis, quarters and finals,” he said when asked about the expectation of another Irish success. ‘In the week of a final you have to shut out the noise. We lost to La Rochelle last year; we were beaten fairly. There is certainly no complacency in our camp.