Ronan O'Gara: 'Secure people don't mind being wrong'
Ronan O'Gara learning all the time as Racing Metro break new ground with Saracens clash
He dominated Europe as a player and remains its greatest ever performer.
Ronan O'Gara and Munster's relationship with European competition was an inextricably bound affair of the heart; it began with unrequited love before blooming into emotional consummation in 2006 and 2008.
Now, the tournament's greatest player is continuing his journey on the other side of the white line as his Racing Metro side prepare for a debut in the knock-out stages, at home to Saracens this weekend.
"It's a long week, Sunday kick-off," says O'Gara, whose side travelled to Bayonne last week, with Ireland's out-half hero Jonathan Sexton in tow, and picked up a gritty 12-6 win.
"It's bizarre, this is the club's first European quarter-final whereas in Ireland it's bread and butter for us. So there's a lot of excitement, we just need to channel that giddiness in the right direction."
Sexton wants to return to Leinster this summer with a burgeoning European legacy behind him but O'Gara will remain integrally involved; and no longer will we see him racing out to his erstwhile playing rival with the kicking tee.
A bizarre edict deriving from France's often quirky labour laws has already decreed that, since he has yet to achieve his full Pro Licence, O'Gara is not allowed to aid his out-half any more; instead, conditioning coach Gilbert Gascou must do so.
Not that it bothers O'Gara.
"I can still kick and Johnny needs to kick intensely at times with a bit of pressure on him, in terms of punting anyway," he says over lunch in Racing HQ.
"As for goal-kicking, there'd be a big shadow over him if I'm handing him the tee. All the work is done at that stage and anything I say won't make a difference, it shouldn't anyway.
"I think it's an issue if I'm on there. It rules out all comparisons. You'd hope people have forgotten about me being there. He doesn't need any unnecessary pressure in terms of kicking a ball. He's his own man. He does his own thing. It's easier for a strength and conditioner to bring out the tee to him."
If Sexton is his own man, so is O'Gara, despite their mutual reliance on each other as social and professional emigrants. A 15-week suspension for head coach Laurent Labit late last year inadvertently allowed O'Gara to become more centrally involved in the team's pre-match defensive drills before decamping to the main stand to keep a more detached watching brief.
All part of the learning curve as he continues the transformation from player to coach.
"He wasn't allowed into the ground for five or six weeks. Selfishly, it was very good for me. I did all the backs co-ordination before the game and then watch it up in the stands with the laptop.
"It's the only way to do it really, down on the pitch you might still think you're a player. It's easier to do it from a height where you've a better overview of things. Down on the pitch it's very reactive whereas you're relaxed in the stand and you can have a bit of a plan.
"It was a big thing, when I came here as a skills coach, that I was going to be labelled as a kicking coach. But since then my role had been expanded. That's what I want to do and I've no idea in pursuing a specialist coaching role. I can obviously help with the kicking but it doesn't stimulate me."
The cultural differences still apply in France; some squad members often appear uninterested.
At training, if a ball is dropped, players shrug and don't pick it up; in Ireland, they'd be shown the door for such laxity, while challenging opinions amongst coaching staff is a wholly different dynamic.
"You learn mountains in coaching all the time. Some people have different opinions on players. That's why it is important to work as a team. Whatever you decide as a staff, that's what you go with. I mightn't necessarily agree with Laurent or he mightn't agree with me. But that's all good," says O'Gara.
"It's completely different from where I come from. You do a certain thing for so long and do it, you'd like to think well. Then you come here and you're challenged completely differently after having to also deal with not being a player any more.
"But you get used to it. The game is changing as well and you have to be at the heart of it, interacting with the players and making tweaks. Just because they're internationals, you need to support their confidence as well as challenging them.
"People outside don't know how a player's confidence can turn. Look at the reason Ireland are so good with their head coach.
"I'm wrong an awful lot of the time too, which is important. When you get it wrong, or mis-read something, it gives you the chance to see things differently. Secure people share ideas. Secure people don't mind being wrong.
"I've been in rugby all of my life but I still don't know everything. Nobody does. It's making it as easy for the players when they take to the field. Most under-appreciated thing is communication, which is definitely an issue in our team.
"I think I know a lot, I do know a lot. I see things quicker because that's what I needed when I played the game. I wasn't the best of athletes and so I needed my brain to read the game. That's what you need. The other side is that there's a great buzz in working with people, challenging them.
"And that's what I miss about Munster. I miss the Zeebs, I miss the Earls, I miss Peter O'Mahony, I miss Conor Murray, I miss Tommy O'Donnell, I miss Kilcoyne.
"I miss the younger fellas because I know how their heads work and how I could get the best out of them. That's what you'd miss on a day-to-day basis. But then, in comes a completely different group of players here, from all over the world, with different mindsets.
"And that is good, it's very good. It's important to say that because that is different from the way myself and Johnny might think. We're from a different culture. When you've done something your whole life one way, it's almost like you have to be de-trained and then re-trained."
He will impart his European experience this weekend, but Munster's most recent struggles against Saracens this term will be much more relevant.
"It's different from Munster because we fed off the supporters; Racing don't have that yet until maybe we get our new stadium. This week is the challenge in front of us.
"If the two Vunipolas get on the front foot, we're in trouble. The result is an outcome of the game obviously but we can't depend on that, we need to depend on our performance.
"There's so much quality in our side, it's just a case of us playing our game. If we wait for Saracens to play their game, we could be very much in trouble, a bit like what happened Munster over there.
"We'll think our way through the game but we'll also have a plan."
O'Gara's role in it will be crucial.