Ronan O'Gara says he's hoping La Rochelle can repeat last season's memorable Heineken Champions Cup run for their supporters.

O'Gara's side stunned Leinster to reach last season's final at Twickenham.

However, with their home quarter-final and semi-final wins against Sale and Leinster both played behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, their famously passionate supporters were unable to fully appreciate the European run.

Having reached the final of both the Heineken Champions Cup and Top 14 where they were beaten by Toulouse on each occasion, La Rochelle are no longer the unknown quantity that they had been 12 months ago.

And the former out-half, who won this competition twice with Munster, says his players have fully bought into what makes European rugby so "special".

"You've no idea how good it was," says O'Gara, who has moved from head coach to director of rugby at the French side this season.

"It was incredibly good for us to get on that journey but the flip side of it now is that we’re all aware of what full stadiums look like again, and it’s only when you look back in Europe last year, there’s was nobody there.

"This place would have gone buck-ape if we were allowed to have supporters in the ground.

"And it’s a pity because La Rochelle have brilliant supporters and are known for that, but the players didn't get the ultimate reward of silverware, or of having full houses.

"That’s what European rugby is all about, and the magic of the European Cup."

Having made a slow start to the season, O'Gara's side have steadily climbed the Top 14 table and arrive at the European break in fifth place, having won five of six prior to last Sunday's defeat at Stade Francais.

"It really is week after week over here and game after game.

"You get very little breathing space but I think because I was aware of the magic of the European Cup, the club and the players and supporters enjoyed the journey, and that's what it’s about," the Corkman adds.

La Rochelle open their campaign this Sunday at home against the Glasgow Warriors, before taking on Bath away from home in round two.

Tournament organisers have opted for the same format as last year, which sees a shortened pool stage to accommodate for the 24-team competition.

With just four pool games for each side to earn qualification for the last 16, it leaves very little margin for error. O'Gara says while the format may be more ruthless, it's a challenge that you have to accept if you're to be contending for the title in May.

"There are only four games, but they're all cup finals and that brings its own pressure," he told RTÉ Sport.

"It depends how you set up your mindset. Are you going to be overcome and look upon it as doom and gloom of having the pressure of playing in Europe, or are you going to be very excited by the opportunity?

"That’ll be the mindset we’ll be taking because for a lot of the guys here it’s from all corners of the world and we’re united to try do something successfully with a club that have given us an opportunity.

For us it’s about playing Glasgow at home in our first game, and that’s where our focus is. The reality is Europe could be over after one afternoon, which is a serious comment to make, but if you lose your first game at home, you’re in trouble in this competition."

Follow Leinster v Bath (Saturday 3.15pm), Connacht v Stade Francais (Sunday 1pm) and Wasps v Munster (Sunday 3.15pm) via our live blogs on RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app or listen to Leinster v Bath and Connacht v Stade Francais on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ Radio 1 Extra.