Johnny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara test rivalry in Champions Cup final | Champions League

FForget the Cannes film festival that has been running all week. If people want to enjoy an absorbing and character-packed drama, they need only venture down the Mediterranean coast to the Stade Vélodrome, where a haunting duel in the style of Shakespeare awaits. For Romeo and Tybalt, read Johnny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara.

Because while on Saturday afternoon Champions League end is nominally between Leinster and La Rochelle, there should be a flashing neon sign outside the ground with the tagline: “When Johnny met ROG”. Two Irish Big 10s, two of the most ruthlessly competitive men in rugby, just one winner’s podium.

The 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 head coach of La Rochellehe could have a personal motive to outwit Sexton and his impressive group from Leinster.

“Of course,” O’Driscoll snorts. “He is a competitor. All rugby players have egos. Nobody wants someone else to be considered better or that he has had greater achievements. That is the reality and if they say otherwise they are absolute liars. You can be sure it will be some motivation.”

In the case of O’Gara and Sexton there has been a clear advantage since they were competing for the same Irish number 10 shirt. that famous photo of the 2009 European semi-final between Leinster and Munster, with young Sexton shouting at his fallen rival as the game turned in favor of the boys in blue. For a time, the couple did their best to avoid each other. As O’Gara once said, it was “the most complicated relationship I’ve ever experienced with any player.”

The permafrost thawed a bit when they were both employed by Racing 92 in Paris and O’Gara texted Sexton suggesting a shared coffee in Marseille on Friday. However, timing didn’t work out, leaving both men focused on the job at hand. Following a productive spell with the crusaders in New ZealandThe 45-year-old O’Gara’s credentials as a top coach have been polished as he reached three major finals with La Rochelle in 12 months. Sexton, meanwhile, continues to defy rugby’s laws of gravity, looking more confident than ever at the controls of Leinster’s smoothly running machine.

Johnny Sexton was trained by O'Gara during his time at Racing 92.
Johnny Sexton was trained by O’Gara during his time at Racing 92. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

“Playstation Rugby” was the astute verdict of a French newspaper after Leinster confidently dismissed Toulouse in the semi-final. On paper, they look like a low-odds bet to claim a fifth European title, save for the crucial caveat that O’Gara knows them inside out. In last year’s semi-final, La Rochelle upped their power game and, in the absence of the injured Sexton, won 32-23. O’Gara has a good idea of ​​how Sexton will think now: “I certainly understand Johnny’s mentality. He is a competitor and that is the understatement of the season. I think he’s also been buoyed by the fact that he didn’t go on the Lions tour last year. That would have hurt him deeply.”

Which is another reason O’Driscoll, for his part, is rubbing his hands together with glee ahead of this weekend’s rematch. “Yes, Roger. [O’Gara] the question is asked, I’m sure he’ll answer directly but of course he doesn’t want Johnny to be five [European titles]. Johnny has four and he has three. [two with Munster and one with La Rochelle] it would feel much more righteous where Rog was concerned. While it is about La Rochelle winning their first Heineken Cup, it is also about stopping a team from Leinster who have reached a level that, dare I say, 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. He prompted O’Driscoll to tell a wry fatherly joke at a recent lunch: “I said I was grooming my son to associate with Luca Sexton by berating him for his lack of perfection at every opportunity,” but both parents enjoyed the experience. O’Driscoll reckons that, at almost 37 years old, Sexton is as happy as ever. “There is a poise and a real comfort to him now. He really seems to be enjoying every game and the quality of training at Leinster.

“The thing that retires guys in their mid-30s is a disconnect from their squad. What do you have in common with 21-year-olds who use Snapchat when you go home with babies and diapers? It’s that and losing your powers. But it doesn’t seem like he’s lost anything. It seems that he now has more time on the ball and is happier holding it longer. But he’s still getting his passes and not encouraging those late shots on him. I really think he’s getting better.”

Another big fan is Stuart Lancaster, whose own impact as a manager 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 want to win and hold everyone accountable to the standards he expects of himself. He is also a student of the game. [but] Probably the highlight is his ability to see the image a fraction of a second before other people. Which can sometimes frustrate you when others haven’t seen the same thing.”

However, Lancaster also has a lot of respect for O’Gara. “You have to admire any coach who is prepared to move his family to France, then to New Zealand and back to France again in pursuit of his development. We have Michael Ala’alatoa here who was in Crusaders at the time and he said the impact that Rog had 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 that Sexton will coach one day: “He was coaching us eight years ago when I last played him; he is encyclopaedic in the knowledge of him” – Leinster’s most immediate concern will be making sure La Rochelle don’t slow down the ruck like lightning allowing Jamison Gibson-Park and Sexton to dictate a killer pace. As O’Driscoll puts it: “If I were the opposition, would I be trying to get to Johnny Sexton? I would like to.”

Johnny Sexton makes an open field run during Leinster's defeat of Toulouse in the 2022 semi-final.
Johnny Sexton makes an open field run during Leinster’s defeat of Toulouse in the 2022 semi-final. Photograph: Peter Fitzpatrick/Action Plus/Shutterstock

Leinster certainly won’t underestimate O’Gara’s tactical talents, which are sure to earn him an international spot in no time. “He will be tight,” predicts O’Driscoll. “Rog will have La Rochelle incredibly well prepared. I think Leinster will make it but he wouldn’t see anything more than a 10-point margin.”

O’Gara, with his giant Will Skelton lock ready to go, would settle for any kind of victory. “After a while it’s all about winning. You have to enjoy the ride but you also need to win. It will be about which team can squeeze the other team and which ones crack under the pressure.” The stage is set for an emotional old-school reunion.

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