Exclusive: After finishing ninth in the Top 14 last season, La Rochelle are now only a single point away from claiming the top spot in France. Utility back Zack Holmes says it all comes down to more belief in the team and away wins.
In terms of away victories, equal with Montpellier, La Rochelle are top of the table: they’ve gained three this season, including a huge five-try win against Bayonne. Holmes began playing for the French side in 2015 and he puts their success in his second and final season with the club down to these three victories.
“We didn’t win any games away from home last year so we struggled to move up the table,” Holmes said.
“This season, we’ve won three away games, which for here is quite impressive. It’s very important to win at home but the ability to take points away from home is what has helped us.”
French sides of course are famously strong on their home turf; current leaders Clermont have won every single one of their games at the Stade Marcel Michelin since August. It seems French fans are encouraged by success, as figures published earlier this year showed both Clermont and La Rochelle’s average crowds have risen this season. Holmes admitted the fans play a big part in home wins.
“It’s the most noise I’ve experienced playing rugby, they’re very vocal,” he explained.
“More than any of the other French crowds I’ve experienced so you don’t want to disappoint. In my first game for the club, we lost and there was some booing from the crowd.”
Holmes certainly must have found favour with the fans this season, given that his kicking has secured victory for La Rochelle on several occasions. In November, the Australian kept his nerve against Toulouse to score two late penalties and a 25-19 win – an important result against the side he will join next season.
Life in the Top 14 obviously suits Holmes, especially as it offers him more game time than he enjoyed back in Super Rugby with the Brumbies and Force.
“I found there was a lack of opportunity with Super Rugby, I didn’t play as much as I wanted. I’ve almost played 50 games in France now; I’ve played more games here than I ever played in Australia,” he added.
“I like that the season’s longer, it’s helped me develop my game just through playing more. That was always a problem for me, not playing enough, and it’s a problem in Australia.”
This appreciation for the long Top 14 season could be considered unusual. Back in 2015 Bernard Laporte, now FFR President, commented in La Provence that the season was far too long.
Many complain that the quality of matches in the French league is poor because players are exhausted from the relentless schedule. Holmes sees things differently.
“I enjoy having the opportunity to play as many games as possible because I’ve lacked that opportunity in the past. In Super Rugby, there’s less opportunities for younger guys to play. I’m pro playing as much rugby as possible.”
The extra minutes on the pitch have paid off for the 26-year-old. Toulouse cited his experience as one of the reasons they recruited him. Another reason given was Holmes’ ability to play in a multitude of positions; this season he has played at fly-half, centre and full-back.
“In professional rugby, I’ve played primarily at 10. I’ve enjoyed playing other positions this season because I’ve had to adapt,” he revealed.
“When you’ve played in someone else’s position, you can see things a bit more from their perspective when they’re saying stuff to you on the pitch. My primary focus is to be playing, whether that’s at 13, 15 or 10.”
Having this flexibility in the backline has benefitted La Rochelle so far. In fact, with the Six Nations on the horizon, flexibility will be key for those sides who have lost players to international teams. First-place rivals Clermont will lose the most players in the Top 14, with seven internationals and one injured Wesley Fofana.
This is of no concern to La Rochelle though, who travel to face Toulon on Saturday.
“There’s not really any talk about what Clermont is doing or how the Six Nations will affect them,” Holmes stated.
“We’ve lost three pretty key players [Mohamed Boughanmi, Uini Atonio and Kevin Gourdon], two tighthead props. Bigger teams than us have more depth to cover when internationals go away. If they lose, we’ll take that but we’re not focussing on what Clermont are doing.”
Earlier this month, La Rochelle showed a willingness to add depth to their squad when they signed Fijian wing Savenaca Rawaca. It is important that the club continually strives to improve like this, as Holmes acknowledges there is still a tough season ahead, even if the campaign to date has been a pleasant surprise.
“There’s probably a bit more of a target on our back now. Before teams probably thought ‘we’re playing La Rochelle away, this could be a chance to pick up some points’,” Holmes added.
“There’s not really any talk about what’s going to happen at the end of the season. We spoke about our aims at the start of the year, which were to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup and finish in the top six of the Top 14 – we’ve just achieved the first one.
“Obviously, we don’t want to be falling down the ladder, but we’ve got difficult games ahead, some big teams away from home.”