‘Yeah, we’ve got different nationalities but, you know, so what? The players care’

THERE IS A World War II story about La Rochelle that is worth a minute of your time.

The Nazis didn’t take long to figure out the port’s geographic importance, occupying it from 1940.

You’d imagine it was a one-way fight – history’s most evil empire rolling its tanks into the coastal town by the Atlantic. But the locals never gave up on the idea of freedom, the president of its local rugby club leading the La Rochelle resistance.

Marcel Deflandre was his name. He was executed in 1944, honoured three years later when La Rochelle rugby club renamed their ground in his honour.

Yesterday in Stade Marcel-Deflandre we saw a purer contest, the battle these overseas visitors fought confined to a sports pitch.

It looked like they would win it, too, building an early lead, retaining it until half-time; before the Deflandre spirit kicked in.

You can say it is absurd and disrespectful to mention something as important as what went on in wartime France with a thing as inconsequential as sport all these years later. And it is, of course it is.

Gregory Alldritt excelled for La Rochelle. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

Yet still, even though this 2021 La Rochelle team is led by a Kiwi, coached by a Cork man and infiltrated with players from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Fiji, Tonga and Argentina, there is clearly a sense of awareness of who they represent.

Leo Cullen, the Leinster coach, certainly noticed it on the bus journey in. “You arrive at the ground and there’s a few thousand supporters outside and flags everywhere all around the town,” Cullen said. “Like, we know it’s a big deal for the club and that they’re keen to be successful. 

“I’ve sort of described that image as we pulled into the ground because when you see that sea of supporters, you need to understand how it means so much to them because we need to bottle up the pain of losing.

“A huge amount of our players experienced a semi-final in Europe for the first time and next time we get to this stage of the competition, we just need to be better because it’s so hard winning an away semi-final in France. 

“People expect that you’re going to roll up and it’ll happen for you, but you get a sense of the atmosphere in the town and how much it means to people here. At one point that was us, trying for our first European win.”

We all know how home advantage counts in sport. Statistics gathered from a century of history tell us that. What we have also learned is that the Covid-enforced removal of crowds has decreased the number of home wins by roughly 25 per cent in the past year.

But yesterday, for the first time since empty stadia became a thing, we heard the respective head coaches talk about the influence of supporters.

Will Skelton celebrates after La Rochelle win. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

Here is Jono Gibbes, the La Rochelle director of rugby: “That (seeing the number of fans outside the ground and en route to the stadium) was extra special; I was very pleased and surprised for our players and it was an incredible experience for them.

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“Normally we just exit the bus and go straight into the ground. We were able to take a little bit of time to soak up the atmosphere and to share something with them that was magical and greatly appreciated.”

Of course there were plenty of other reasons for La Rochelle’s 32-23 victory, the effectiveness of their maul, the number of turnovers they enforced in the second-half, the absence of Johnny Sexton, the early injury to Rhys Ruddock, the dominant performances of Will Skelton and Gregory Alldritt.

Tellingly, Cullen pointed to the ‘number of things’ that went against his side, saying: “The game at this level can be quite simple. I thought the half backs controlled the game well for La Rochelle. I thought (Tawera) Kerr-Barlow was very good sniping around the ruck and did well to buy a couple of penalties.

“They just showed good street smarts I thought, generally speaking.

“It is never one thing in these games. There’s lots of little things that we’ll look back on with great regret.

“We went to compete early and had a few turnovers but we didn’t quite nail our execution or our commitment to the plan; they are big men, once they get a roll on, they are hard to stop.”

Also hard to stop, once again, are French teams in Europe, La Rochelle joining Toulouse in the Champions Cup final; Montpellier making it into the Challenge Cup final. “Certainly the Top 14 teams are powerful,” said Cullen. “We need to learn how to deal with that, be smarter. But a lot of that comes down to nailing some of the opportunities that we had early in the game. It is something we have done in the past.”

The past is where we will return to in a minute. Before that, we’ll reflect on Gibbes’ analysis on how La Rochelle won, the various factors he listed, how they ‘steadied the ship in the opening 20 minutes; took confidence from the fact they were just a point down at half-time; kept faith in Ronan O’Gara’s defensive system; profited from the go-forward ball handed to them by their maul and how they adapted and used their different team strengths’.

But when all that tactical chat ended, Gibbes brought the conversation back to a simpler issue, how this, essentially, was a victory for a club’s spirit.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work in a few different environments and in all honesty, it doesn’t come down to nationality or where you are born, it comes down to who you are and what kind of people you’ve got,” he said.

“Yeah, we’ve got different nationalities but, you know, so what?

“The best environments I’ve been in have focused on those who you want to be there, who want to contribute, make the place better and leave it in a better place after you’ve gone.”

Marcel Deflandre looked at the world in a similar way. The players representing his club yesterday knew who, and what, they were representing. Even in the modern game, that sort of thing matters.  

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