Ronan O'Gara is preparing his La Rochelle team to face Leinster in this weekend's Champions Cup final, and he knows that Johnny Sexton will be crucial to everyone the Irish side do in Marseille on Saturday.
O'Gara and Sexton infamously fought it out for the Ireland out half jersey for nearly four years at the tail-end of O'Gara's career. The clash of O'Gara as La Rochelle head coach and Sexton as Leinster's out half on Saturday provides a fascinating subplot to the showpiece match of European rugby.
Speaking on a media call on Monday, Ronan O'Gara praised arguably the greatest rival of his playing days. He said that Sexton is playing better rugby than he was this time last year - and thinks that missing out on last summer's British and Irish Lions squad may have had something to do with that turnaround in form.
O'Gara praises Sexton ahead of Champions Cup final
Ronan O'Gara won two European Cup titles as a player with Munster, claiming the 2006 and 2008 crowns before the dominance of Leinster took over the Irish game.
O'Gara spoke to the media on Monday ahead of taking on Leinster once more this weekend. The centrepiece of Leinster's brilliance for the past decade has been Ireland out half Johnny Sexton.
Last summer, Sexton controversially missed out on a spot in Warren Gatland's Lions squad. Dan Biggar, Finn Russell, and Owen Farrell were all selected ahead of Sexton and, even when injury cover was required, Sexton was looked over for young Englishman Marcus Smith.
The season that has followed that Lions tour has seen Sexton playing some phenomenal rugby - and O'Gara thinks that the disappointment of last year's Lions tour omission may have pushed Sexton to these new heights.
That would have hurt him deeply, so now it’s another example of his excellent resilience that now he’s coming back.
I think he’s made changes to his game. He’s always been a good passer of the ball but now he’s become a threat again, which he may have put on the back burner.
You saw against Toulouse, he has a very good running game, a good passing game, a good kicking game and he’s very good at seeing the opportunity before other people see it.
That’s what a lot of great 10s do. He sees things quicker than other people and he’s able to manipulate his attackers and defenders into space because they’ve got great cohesion amongst them.
The changing of the guard in Irish provincial rugby famously came at Croke Park in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final. Johnny Sexton burst on to the scene with an instrumental performance, as Leinster dismantled defending champions Munster 25-6 on their way to a first European title. O'Gara was the Munster out half that day - and the shot of Sexton goading O'Gara after Gordon D'Arcy's try for Leinster has become symbolic of the similar changing of the guard at 10 for Ireland.
Since that 2009 semi-final, Leinster have increased their tally to four European titles.
Munster legend O'Gara also led La Rochelle to last year's Champions Cup final, where they ultimately lost out to Toulouse. There is a fine balance at play - despite losing last year's final, La Rochelle did beat Leinster in the semi-final, so they will believe they are capable of winning Saturday's showdown.
O'Gara said that his team will take confidence from last year's semi-final win. Nonetheless, he hinted that his old rival Sexton (who missed the 2021 semi-final) has been pivotal to Leinster's improvements this season, and that he and Jamison Gibson-Park will be crucial in Marseille:
Twelve months ago, Johnny probably wasn’t playing as good as rugby as he is now. So that’s a positive for Leinster. They’ll have a different nine and a different ten. They’ll have a few changes up front as well.
But I suppose their DNA stays the same. That’s important when you’re trying to tell the French guys that they’ll be highly organised, highly efficient and fit, and highly skilled.
I suppose we have to take confidence from what happened last year and the key for us will be to try to start well.
The renewal of Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton's rivalry is a fascinating subplot ahead of this weekend's Champions Cup final.
The mutual respect between the two old foes is clear. Whether it be a first Champions Cup triumph as a coach for O'Gara, or a record fifth European crown for Sexton, it will be a historic day for one of Ireland's great out halves in Marseille on Saturday.