5:00 p.m., May 22, 2022
Ronan O’Gara’s agenda is timed at this end of the season without breathing. Qualified for the final of the European Cup with La Rochelle and still in the running for the final phase of the top 14 after Saturday’s victory against Stade Français (32-13), the 45-year-old Irish head coach still took the time, Tuesday in his office, to evoke his European memories. Winner as a player with Munster in 2006 and 2008, after being a finalist in 2000 and 2002, he will experience his third continental summit in Marseille on Saturday in the coaching costume (2016 with Racing 92, 2021 with La Rochelle). Above all, he will find his best enemy: Leinster.
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What is your first memory of the European Cup?
In 1997. I was 20 years old, it was a match with Munster at Harlequins. In front of me, there was a French opening half: Thierry Lacroix. There were lots of stars in this team, lots of English internationals, it was very strong. We had lost and there had been a lot of points [48-40]. In Munster, the European Cup is like the Brennus shield for the French: it was our competition, the one everyone wanted to win at the start of the season.
And it took you a while to get there…
Yes, I lose the first two finals [2000 et 2002]. It’s difficult, it takes time to win. Finally, I must not say this too loudly: my players lost last season in the final of the top 14 and the European Cup in a few weeks [contre le Stade toulousain], and I keep telling them that it doesn’t matter, that they will win the next one! The victories in 2006 and 2008 are unforgettable. The first was at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff against Biarritz, and there was an incredible atmosphere. At the end of the match, they had shown images of the main street of Dublin on the giant screen of the stadium: there were I don’t know how many thousands of people, that will remain engraved for life.
In 2006, you beat rival province Leinster in the semi-finals at Lansdowne Road. Did it have even more flavor?
We had won 30-6 against them and I had the chance to score 20 points. Inevitably, it is a great memory. It was THE game! This is perhaps the one where I had the most pressure in my life. All of Ireland was waiting for this shock. When you are a player, you have no right to miss it. In the morning, I managed to laugh, to joke, to stay calm. Arriving at the stadium, I rocked. Today, that’s what I also try to pass on to my players.
Three years later, still in the semi-finals, Leinster took their revenge at Croke Park…
These are the real beginnings of the province of Leinster, of its arrival at the highest level since it had been crowned that year. In front of us, opener Felipe Contepomi was injured and Jonathan Sexton had returned. He didn’t move from that team after that.
Munster-Leinster is like Barcelona-Real Madrid or OM-PSG
In the back of your mind, are you going to play next Saturday’s final like a former Munster player?
If I motivated myself like that, it would be a very big mistake. But I can’t forget that Munster is the place where I spent all my playing life. Munster-Leinster is like Barcelona-Real Madrid or OM-PSG: a big match that you dream of playing. I won’t think of this final as someone from Munster, but it’s still special for me…
After the two finals lost last season, were you afraid of not getting up?
It was very important to get back there right away, to show that the club is still there, that it continues to move forward. People don’t understand how violent it is to lose two finals. These are two big slaps. Even when you’re strong in your head, it’s hard. You had to be able to get up from that, and build another project.
Are you proud to hold the record for the number of matches played (110) and points scored (1,365) in the European Cup?
My children showed them to me! It confirmed an impression I already had. Rugby has changed except on one point: the opening half often leads his team to victories. When there are finals with very few points, penalties must be imposed. In 2000, we lost 9-8 to Northampton. Paul Grayson had three penalties, Ronan O’Gara zero, with also a missed conversion…