Less than two years into his tenure as a head coach, Ronan O'Gara has taken La Rochelle within sight of a Heineken Champions Cup final.

Pre-tournament favourites Leinster stand in the way in the semi-finals on Sunday and it's shaping up to be a fascinating contest.

Speaking on this week's RTÉ Rugby Podcast, Donal Lenihan and Bernard Jackman assessed the former Munster and Ireland out-half's trajectory and how it has taken him to impressive heights so early in his coaching journey.

"I think the Crusaders has made him," said Lenihan in reference to the two years he spent in New Zealand before his return to France.

"I remember speaking to him at the time and it was a daunting task to put yourself in there into a group that have the most incredibly high standards. There's a culture built up around the Crusaders which has been there for years and years that has been there since the start of Super Rugby and they have been incredibly successful.

"He went through a difficult couple of months early on. I remember I met Scott Robertson in Japan during the World Cup and we had a fascinating half an hour together discussing ROG. But he's always open to learn.

"He's open-minded whereas as a player he might have been tunnel vision and that was it. The Crusaders experience I think has made him."

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Lenihan also expressed interest in seeing how O'Gara develops as an operator with director of rugby, former Leinster forwards coach, Jono Gibbes set to depart his role along side him to join Clermont.

"Now that he's had another year and a half in La Rochelle, with Jono Gibbes going, it will be interesting to see. I would've said he was coach pure and simple, keep him away from the admin stuff, keep him away from contracts and all that," he said.

"Jono Gibbes is now going to Clermont, so (O'Gara) is now taking another step up. But in everything he has done so far, he has proved himself. I think silently he'll be really looking forward to this game this weekend - nothing to do with Munster and his career but by virtue of the fact that Leinster, for me, are favourites to win the Champions Cup."

Jackman added that the two key figures are responsible for La Rochelle's impressive rise.

"This La Rochelle team, I would say is testament to Jono Gibbes and Ronan O'Gara," he said.

"They've taken it from being a seventh to eighth team in the Top 14 to being a top of the table and semi-finalists in Europe."

Scott Fardy in action against Exeter in the quarter-finals

Lenihan also discussed what Leinster can expect from the La Rochelle side that O'Gara and Gibbes will assemble for Sunday.

In his view, La Rochelle are a "bit different" to other French Top 14 sides in that there is a bit "more balance" about them as well as a versatility of being able to play a heavy, physical game with "an unbelievably massive front five" when necessary.

To counter that threat, Jackman feels Leinster may benefit from including Scott Fardy in their own pack.

"I think when Jono and ROG look at Leinster, if they can put a squeeze on them up front - and they have a huge front five and a very powerful pack in general - and even though they do play a high tempo, offloading game a lot in the Top 14, I've been able to see them vary that and just rely on playing a lot through the forwards.

"So do you leave Ryan Baird on the bench to bring an impact and start with a warrior like Fardy or do you just get him on from the start?

"I personally think Fardy has a role to play this weekend. I know he's retiring but he's still a good operator and they need to make sure that they don't take a backwards step against this La Rochelle pack."

Follow La Rochelle v Leinster (Sunday, 3pm) and Leicester v Ulster (Friday, 8pm) via our live blogs on RTE.ie and the RTÉ News app or listen live on RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday Sport and RTÉ Radio 1 Extra.

Listen to the RTÉ Rugby podcast on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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