Johnny Sexton leads Leinster against La Rochelle and his former teammate and rival Ronan O’Gar

Ireland’s dozens of past and present collide in Saturday’s Heineken European Champions Cup Final, and Ronan O’Gara believes Johnny Sexton took advantage of the pain of overlooking selection on the Lions last tour to rekindle his career.

Former test teammates and selection rivals are key to the clash between Leinster and La Rochelle in the scorching heat of the Mediterranean at the Stade Velodrome. While the province of Dublin is a clear favorite, former Munster icon O’Gara is responsible for Team La Rochelle, which can pose a threat due to its terrifying physicality and a cheeky sense of adventure.

But he knows that Sexton, Leinster’s veteran and half-maestro to fly, is again running at the peak of his powers because last year he seemed to be a waning force. “Twelve months ago, Johnny wasn’t playing as well as he is now,” O’Gara said.

Johnny Sexton will face old teammate and rival # 10 on Saturday

Ronan O'Gara leads the La Rochelle team which will face Leinster

Johnny Sexton (left) and Ronan O’Gara (right) will face the European Champions Cup final

He has a theory about the cause of the 36-year-old’s personal transformation and adds: “I can understand Johnny’s way of thinking; that he is a competitor. It’s an understatement of the season! He loves rugby. It’s a great game, so keep playing it as long as you can. If you’re good, you keep going and he outranks the rest in his position, comfortable.

“But I think he was driven too. There wasn’t much deal with the fact that he didn’t take the Lions tour, but it would hurt him deeply. So now that is another example of his excellent resilience and he is back.

– Made changes to his game. He had always passed the ball well, but now he’s become a (running) threat again. You saw in the semi-final against Toulouse that he has a very good running game, good passing, a good kick game and is very good at spotting an opportunity before other people see it. That’s what a lot of Great Tens do – and he sees things faster than other people. ”

Former England coach Stuart Lancaster is at the heart of Leinster’s sovereign path to their fifth European conquest. He also made a big impact on Sexton since his arrival in the province in 2016 and has paid tribute to the enduring class of the quarterback.

As former teammates, O'Gara knows Sexton very well and has praised his talent and resilience

As former teammates, O’Gara knows Sexton very well and has praised his talent and resilience

“Jonny has many qualities that I really admire,” said Lancaster. “One is his competitiveness and his desire to win and hold everyone accountable for the standards he expects of himself. Thanks to many years of experience, he has an amazing knowledge of the game. Perhaps its greatest distinguishing feature is the ability to see a picture a fraction of a second earlier than others. Sometimes it can frustrate him when others have not seen the same!

Sexton’s inborn vision and game sense helped turn Leinster into an incredibly fluid team, but O’Gara as a coach had a similar effect on La Rochelle. He quickly built an impressive CV after switching to Racing 92 – where Sexton and Crusaders briefly trained in New Zealand – where he improved his reputation far from home.

O’Gara recently declared his interest in running to replace Eddie Jones as England’s head coach and would be a candidate with a pedigree. Lancaster is impressed with his work.

The ambitious O'Gara has expressed an interest in replacing Eddie Jones as England's head coach

The ambitious O’Gara has expressed an interest in replacing Eddie Jones as England’s head coach

“You have to admire any coach who is willing to move his family to France and then to New Zealand and back to France in pursuit of development,” he said. “We met and chatted several times and I trained against him several times.

“The reaction of the Crusaders has always been positive in terms of the contribution it has made. That a coach from the Northern Hemisphere came down there and made such an impact is a testimony to him.

“We have Michael Ala’alato here who was at Crusaders at the time and said ROG made a huge impact. He is competitive, has a great knowledge of the game and, like Johnny, has an open mind to want to learn and get better. These are great attributes for coaches. “

The respect is mutual. When asked what makes Leinster different, O’Gara said: “I admire the way they play the game in a quick and very creative way. They have a very good group of players, but you can see that their coaches get the best out of their players. I think they challenge their players in all aspects of the game and try to make them complete players, and they look very, very good.

Former England head coach Stuart Lancaster, now Leinster in charge, is impressed by O'Gar

Former England head coach Stuart Lancaster, now Leinster in charge, is impressed by O’Gar

“I’m fascinated with how we handle Leinter because they hum, give massive performances and spit out opponents easily. You just hope that maybe with the profiles we have, they’ll have a harder time against us.

Leinster certainly struggled with La Rochelle and their mighty strikers last season as they lost the semi-final 32-23 at the Stade Marcel Deflandre. So while there are frequent tips on Saturday to win, Lancaster remains decidedly wary of its outlook.

“We won five trophies but also lost in the semi-finals, quarter-finals and finals,” he said when asked about the expectation of another Irish success. – You need to drown out the noise in Final Week. We lost to La Rochelle last year; we were beaten fair and straight. There is certainly no complacency in our camp.

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