Hurt O'Gara insists Racing can still retain Top 14 title
Ronan O'Gara wore a red jersey in honour of a fallen friend last Saturday. At game end, his countenance was flushed puce too.
How could a side who reached the Champions Cup final and trumped the tortuous marathon that is the French title in 2016 have stooped so low?
Their abject submission to Munster, comprehensively out-muscled by a widely lauded 'red wall' and tactically out-witted - if thwarting a game-plan of myopic inanity indeed demands much intelligence - was the latest low point of a depressing season.
A reminder, perhaps, that as much as he attempted to invoke a sense of Munster's core values in his team's dead rubber, the players at his disposal seemed frankly unwilling to reciprocate.
His players continue to support the assistant to the two Laurents, Labit and Travers, but one wonders if O'Gara, and the head coaches, can continue to support a clutch of players who have proved incapable of maintaining minimum standards.
"It's not making an excuse but I think the fact that we were out with three games to go, the priority was on performing against Lyon in the Top 14 on January 28," said O'Gara, whose side lie ninth in the domestic table, well outside the play-off spots.
"If you've got intentions of winning that game you'd want to be kind of going well for the weeks previously.
"So this didn't go well, we'll see how Leicester goes and Thomond Park is a big challenge. So we'll have to see what the best policy is to get performances out of us."
French international flanker Antonie Claasen was keen to absolve the coaches of any blame, citing O'Gara's key influence last season.
"Ronan is always vocal, he always tries to pick up the boys. This was a particularly important game for him as well, playing against his old club after all that happened," he said.
"He is always up for it, sometimes he feels he wishes he could still play. He gives 100pc all the time and he is very professional.
"His track record speaks for itself. Look at the defensive structures he brought in for us last season when we won the league.
"The way he works with the guys, he has come a long way and has improved all the time. We are very glad to have him here."
O'Gara is slated to stay until 2019 but before his first reunion with his former province, he was once more asked - rather indelicately by a local as the query was crudely juxtaposed with Anthony Foley's death - about his future plans.
"In the future, yes, of course, maybe I'd like to train there," he responded, not for the first time. "But rugby does not work like that.
"I am a young coach and my challenge is here. I am very happy. I love the Top 14 but I'm very disappointed with our performance in the Champions Cup.
"The performances are also related to the fact that we only had five days to prepare the season, which is not normal.
"We can now target the Brennus Shield (French title) and I think we are on the right track."
Meantime, there will be much more pain in Europe and his return to Thomond Park promises to be another excruciating experience for such a proud man, for whom the indifference displayed by his side last Saturday is anathema to one steeped in Munster tradition.
"A lot of things need to change but that's the good thing about it in that it can change quickly in sport," said O'Gara.
"It's a similar enough squad that got to the final last year and won a Top 14 but it feels like two seasons rolled into one with a five-day pre-season.
"We need to have a full overhaul and decide how we are going to plan it and how we are going to execute it.
"Subconsciously, hunger levels wouldn't be as high as they need to be. That's something that real champion teams do. But we haven't."
Joe Rokocoko's stark admission - "We felt that the level in this competition has jumped another notch and we are just resting off what we did last year" - amplifies the concern.
"Hopefully it's similar to 2006 in Munster when 2007 wasn't a good year and 2008 was a great year," adds O'Gara.
"It happens but it's sickening being involved with a team getting hosed like that."