Forget the Cannes film festival that ran all week. If people want to enjoy an absorbing, character-heavy drama, all they need to do is venture down the Mediterranean coast to the Stade Vélodrome, where a careful, Shakespearean-style duel awaits. For Romeo and Tybalt, read Johnny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara.
Because on a Saturday afternoon Cup of Champions final is nominally between Leinster and La Rochelle, there should be a flashing neon sign off the ground with the brake line: “When Johnny met ROG”. Two big Irish numbers 10, two of rugby’s most consistently competitive men, a podium of just one winner.
Sport is full of classic rivalries but the pair’s former Irish teammate Brian O’Driscoll laughs out loud when asked if O’Gara, once from Munster and now the head coach of La Rochellecould have a personal motive for outwitting Sexton and his impressive Leinster group.
“Of course,” snorts O’Driscoll. “He is a competitor. All rugby players have egos. No one wants anyone else to be considered better or to have greater achievements. That is the reality and if they say otherwise they are an absolute liar. You can be sure that it will be an incentive. “
In the case of O’Gara and Sexton there has been a clear edge since they competed for the same Irish number 10 shirt. It is too that famous photo of the 2009 European semi-final between Leinster and Munster, with the younger striker shouting down at his fallen rival as the game turned in favor of the boys in blue. For a while the couple went out to avoid each other. As O’Gara once said, it was “the hardest relationship I’ve ever had with any player.”
The permafrost melted slightly when they were both hired by Racing 92 in Paris and O’Gara sent a text to Sexton suggesting a common coffee in Marseille on Friday. The times didn’t work out, though, leaving both men concentrating on the task at hand. Following productive a spell with the crusaders in New Zealand, the 45-year-old O’Gara’s credentials as head coach were dashed by reaching three major finals with La Rochelle in 12 months. Sexton, meanwhile, continues to defy the laws of rugby gravity, looking more confident than ever at the controls of the smooth-running Leinster machine.
“Playstation Rugby” was the shrewd judgment in one French newspaper after Leinster’s confident dismissal from Toulouse in the semi-finals. On paper, they look like a short-term bet to claim a fifth European title, in addition to the decisive warning that O’Gara knows them inside. In last year’s semi-final, La Rochelle regularly strengthened its strong play and, in the absence of the injured Sexton, won 32-23. O’Gara has a good idea of what Sexton will think now: “I certainly understand Johnny’s way of thinking. He’s a competitor and that’s the understatement of the season. I think he was also fed up with the fact that he didn’t do last year’s Lions tour. That would hurt him deeply. ”
Which is another reason why O’Driscoll, one, rubs his hands with joy ahead of this weekend’s rematch. “She is OK [O’Gara] the question is asked, I’m sure he’ll hit it straight but of course he doesn’t want Johnny to have five. [European titles]. Johnny having four and he having three [two with Munster and one with La Rochelle] would feel much fairer about Rog. As for La Rochelle winning their first Heineken Cup, it’s also about stopping a Leinster team that kicked to a level that, dare I say that, even Munster would envy. “
The next generation also looks promising with O’Driscoll’s eldest son Billy playing on the same St Mary’s mini-rugby team as Sexton’s seven-year-old son, Luca. It prompted O’Driscoll to recount an old father’s gag at a recent lunch – “I said I was preparing my boyfriend to partner Luca Sexton, scolding him for a lack of perfection at every opportunity” – but both fathers enjoyed the experience. O’Driscoll estimates that, at nearly 37, Sexton is as content as he was. “It simply came to our notice then. He really seems to enjoy every game and the quality of the training at Leinster.
“The thing that is retiring guys in the mid-30s is disconnecting from their squad. What do you have in common with 21-year-old Snapchatting when you go home to kids and diapers? That’s it and losing your powers. But it seems, “He’s feeling like he’s got more time on the ball now and he’s happier holding it longer. But he’s still getting his deaths and he’s not encouraging those late shots on him. . ”
Another massive fan is Stuart Lancaster, whose own training impact on Leinster’s rise should not be underestimated. “Johnny has a lot of qualities that I really admire. One is his competitiveness and his desire to win and hold everyone accountable by the standards he expects of himself. He is also a student of the game. [but] probably his greatest highlight is his ability to see the picture one second earlier than other people. What can sometimes frustrate him when others have not seen the same thing. ”
Lancaster, however, has a lot of respect for O’Gara, too. “You have to admire any coach who is willing to move his family to France, then to New Zealand and back to France again in the quest to develop himself. We have Michael Ala’alatoa here who was at the crusaders at the time and he said the impact had Rog was great. He is competitive, he has a great knowledge of the game and like Johnny he has that open mind to want to learn and improve. They are great attributes for coaches. “
While O’Driscoll is equally convinced, Sexton will be a coach one day – “He coached us eight years ago when I last played with him; he is encyclopedic to his knowledge. ”- Leinster’s immediate concern will be to ensure that La Rochelle does not slow down the speed of rock speed that allows Jamison Gibson-Park and Sexton to dictate a deadly beat. As O’Driscoll puts it: “If I were the opposition, would I try to reach Johnny Sexton? I would. “
Leinster will certainly not underestimate O’Gara’s tactics, which will surely win him an international concert too soon. “It’s going to be tense,” O’Driscoll predicts. “Rog will have La Rochelle incredibly well prepared. I think Leinster will do it, but I wouldn’t see anything more than a 10-point margin. “
O’Gara, with his giant lock Will Skelton fit to start, will be content with some sort of victory. “It simply came to our notice then. You have to enjoy the journey, but you also have to win. It’s about what team can press the other team and who bursts under the pressure. ”The stage is set for an emotional old-school reunion.
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