TOP 14 – Rejected at the doors of the final on its first two attempts, the Stade rochelais approaches the third half of its history differently armed. Facing Racing this Friday (20:45), the Maritimes hope to build on their momentum.
“This third semi-final, I hope it’s the right one, that we’ll go through.” Or how to ward off the old saying “never two without three”. On Monday, at the end of the first training of the week of preparation for the clash against Racing, Uini Atonio still had in mind the first two failures of the club in the caravel at this stage of the competition. And for good reason, he was on the pitch both nights. And even captain, the first time.
Crucified on the wire by Toulon in 2017 (15-18), after an impressive regular phase, then more logically outclassed by Toulouse in 2019 (20-6), this XV rochelais has, since, taken more thickness. This is evidenced, in particular, by its colossal success in the Champions Cup semi-final, early May, against Leinster (32-23). “If the club is better armed? Yes, there has been a rise in power for years. It’s normal, the Top 14 is getting harder and harder. This year’s recruits like Will (Skelton) and Brice (Dulin) are doing us a world of good”, the right back supports.
No question of “merit” for O’Gara
The French international, who has been with the club since 2011, exudes determination: “There’s no room for fatigue. You have to be 100% present. The guys are involved, no one is tired, everyone wants to play, there is really competition in every position. We must not attack this game as if it was a regular phase game, there is more pressure. We’ve never made a Top 14 final. This group would deserve it.”
Ah, the famous “merit”, so much underlined by many former members of the staff. Such as Sazy, Gourdon and others. A criterion that does not enter into consideration at all, on the other hand, in the mind of Ronan O’Gara. “Many people would like to see La Rochelle lift the shield because we deserve it. But we don’t deserve anything! I’ve been in rugby for 25 years, it doesn’t work like that,” said the Maritime head coach a few days after the Champions Cup final defeat.
You have to work to lift the Brennus,” said the Irish coach. You have to work with precision and then, maybe, you are in a position to do something in the last ten minutes of a game. Merit is not the key to success. The key is to perform for 80 minutes.” Against Racing this Friday night at Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, La Rochelle is unlikely to escape that.
The previous weekend, the French club’s demonstration against the Parisian neighbors (38-21) in the playoff, the Rochelais watched it all together. And, like all observers, they found nothing to laugh about. “Racing is no laughing matter. Up front, they shave the rucks and, behind, they can make offloads from everywhere!”, commented Uini Atonio, who praised “more rigor and application” in the maritime clan this week because “in front, it will be thick.”
Appearing blunt in Clermont, almost two weeks ago, the Rochelais are reinvigorated and ready for the challenge, according to them. “The weekend off was good for the body, for the head, to take a breather and to give ourselves the opportunity to impose instead of undergoing or doing the minimum, ensures Brice Dulin. We’ll have to do what we do best, which is to play collectively. There will be opportunities, if any. We’ll have to really tire them out. We all want to go to Paris, to play this final. It’s imperative that we are consistent, disciplined and aware that the slightest little mistake or the slightest meter behind can be very costly.”
The Rocky back knows what he is talking about. As a two-time French champion, he was crowned with Castres and then Racing. You don’t necessarily need to have experienced things to feel the words to say or the behavior to have,” says the native of Agen. You have to be aware that it’s a match like we’ve experienced all season long. Of course, there is even more at stake because we can’t lose, but we mustn’t lose our lucidity by trying to overplay. We must play simply, be patient and not let ourselves be carried away by the stakes, the public’s reaction or a refereeing decision. Do what Racing did in the play-off: be ready at kick-off and put the right ingredients in place for things to go well.”
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