Monday 26 September 2016

O'Gara keen to play the long game at Racing

Published 10/03/2016 | 02:30

Former Ireland and Munster No 10 has opted to stay in Paris for another three years Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Former Ireland and Munster No 10 has opted to stay in Paris for another three years Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Throughout his illustrious playing career Ronan O'Gara retained a great sense of timing.

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During his short time in coaching, there has been a widespread expectation that at some point he will return to Munster and Ireland. Yesterday, he deferred that prospect by another couple of years by extending his stay at Racing 92 until 2019.

And why wouldn't he?

At 39, O'Gara is just three years younger than Anthony Foley but his coaching career appears to have far more scope for growth than his old team-mate who may regret ascending to the top of the tree at Munster quite so quickly.

The former No 8 retired in 2008, of course, while the out-half went in 2013 which means that he had a major head start, and you can be sure that O'Gara was watching closely as his former colleagues made their way in the world ahead of him.

Ever a one-club man, Foley remained in Munster to hone his craft and served as the province's 'A' team coach and forwards coach and as Ireland's defence and Wolfhounds coach before taking the top job.

Extension

After two years, he is still mulling over whether to take up the option of a year's extension as the province look to switch to a director of rugby model as the team struggle to qualify for next season's Champions Cup.

Whenever Foley's time at Munster comes to an end, it is hard to see what his next move might be. While there is always scope to reinvent himself elsewhere, it looks like a tough job for a young coach who has had a rough couple of years.

In contrast, O'Gara took his young family to Paris on retirement, linking up with the new money of Racing 92 and the coterie of new signings that owner Jacky Lorenzetti had secured.

Most of the names who landed in the summer of 2013, including Johnny Sexton and Jamie Roberts, have departed but the coaching ticket has remained in situ.

When he arrived to work with Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit as a skills and kicking coach, the 130-times capped international quickly realised that he was expected to take a hands-on role within the set-up.

The two coaches had been hired from Castres where they had just won an unlikely Top 14 crown and didn't take a huge team with them, which meant the recently-retired star was thrown in at the deep end when it came to coaching without the pressure of being a head coach.

He is working with successful coaches who have a very different approach to what he had experienced in Ireland, while some of the best players in the world have passed through the doors of Racing's state-of-the-art training centre in the south-east suburbs of Paris.

Having assumed responsibility for Racing's defence, he now works with an all-time great in Dan Carter on a daily basis at a team who currently sit top of the Top 14 and have a home quarter-final in the Champions Cup.

Like Grenoble head coach Bernard Jackman, he keeps his profile high in Ireland through his media engagements, but Racing's results usually pass under the radar. He can make mistakes away from the prying eyes of the Irish public.

Patient

In rugby, playing careers are short but coaching careers don't have to be. If you are patient, you can soak up knowledge for a long time before eventually taking the plunge with a top job.

He has been linked with roles at his former province, with Ireland and even with France, but has decided to continue with Racing for another three seasons.

"I'll always be for Munster, of Munster, but I won't be going near it anytime soon," he wrote in his Examiner column recently.

"The best rugby players are over here now. Without a doubt, I am in France for a good few years yet. There were times in my first season where the grass still looked very green at home, but this year I am thinking differently. When I have moments to reflect, I can see the amount of learning still in front of me.

"For sure, the season here is mentally taxing. But the mental slog is countered by the fact that I am not the head coach, and I've come to accept that my impact is incremental.

"I can't really impose drastic change. Consequently, I've become a lot more chilled. Last season, I was like a caged animal for a while, but it's wasted energy.

"The quality of player at Racing is very good, so you get challenged as a coach. They'll stop you and say 'maybe we could do it this way' and you have that good debate."

That interaction should help O'Gara develop as a coach.

He already has the name, the profile and the reputation to succeed but he also has the patience to realise that the long game is worth playing so that he can have a long and successful coaching career.

It seems inevitable that some day he will return to Thomond Park but is looks like he will do it on his own terms, when he is ready.

He visited the devastated Munster dressing-room after the Stade Francais defeat in Paris and is fully aware of the hurt that Foley is going through as his beloved province struggle.

All of that can wait for O'Gara who will look to get his timing right if and when he eventually returns to Ireland after 2019.

Irish Independent

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