Munster man has a different mindset now and hopefully one day he’ll return to a leading role in Ireland
There’s never been a story like the one Ronan O’Gara continues to create. It was this month nine years ago that he retired as a player to begin his coaching career.
What’s gripping about his story is not just the fact that he masterminded the plan to beat favourites Leinster in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final in his first season in charge as the main boss at La Rochelle.
Or the fact that he has a European title as a head coach with a French club to go with the two European winners medals he won as a player with Munster.
But what O’Gara is now creating is a life where his time as a head coach is becoming just as – if not more – fascinating as his career as a player.
To borrow a Jurgen Klopp phrase, O’Gara has created his own mentality monsters at La Rochelle.
We always knew O’Gara thought differently as a player, like the interview he gave before Munster’s first game as defending Heineken Cup champions against Leicester in 2006, when he said: “I honestly think that both for Munster and Ireland, we’ve got more talented players than the English in many positions.”
That game came down to O’Gara and a long-range winning penalty. What’s almost more intriguing is how O’Gara the head coach is infusing his players with belief and confidence. Any hidden remnants from losing two finals last year could have been exposed at times in Marseille.
But they didn’t appear to feel sorry for themselves when Thomas Lavault was sin-binned after 65 minutes and they certainly didn’t give up, despite being behind for practically the entire game until they scored that third try minutes from the end.
We also saw the ROG resilience in the mentality of the La Rochelle outhalf.
The final looked set up to be the coronation of Johnny Sexton as perhaps Ireland’s greatest ever player, while there was almost a fear for his opposite number Ihaia West, who had a nightmare with his place-kicking in their semi-final win over Racing 92.
But O’Gara’s work was written all over the calmness and composure of West during Saturday’s final, which spoke to the steeliness of the team as a whole.
“It was easy to keel over and lose today but that’s not us,” O’Gara said. “We have a little bit of balls about us. We found a way to win.”
In the making of O’Gara as a head coach is the thread that he didn’t always take the easy option but he did it his way.
His young family were settling into life in Paris as he worked as an assistant coach with Racing 92 when they decided to move to New Zealand, where O’Gara worked with the Crusaders for two seasons.
They returned to France but this time to a new destination in La Rochelle, a club only promoted from the Pro D2 in 2014.
O’Gara could have returned to Munster but he stuck with his own path. When Jono Gibbes left at the end of last season, O’Gara went all in as the main man in charge of La Rochelle.
He brought in Donnacha Ryan, who had no previous coaching experience other than his stand-out coaching abilities as a player.
The instincts O’Gara leaned on as a player seem to have become even more sharpened as a coach.
Minutes before he got sprayed by his players in the middle of a live interview on BT Sport after their win on Saturday, O’Gara said: “This is the start of something special, I hope, with the club.” The exact same could be said about his coaching career.
O’Gara’s coaching story has never just been about coaching but it’s also about a person whose outlook has changed. Because of his openness and willingness to share a lot more about himself than perhaps other head coaches.
O’Gara lets us in on how his stint with the Crusaders changed him.
“I was closed in Munster, just in terms of maybe I had a really loyal bunch of team-mates and my own friends from school so I didn’t feel I needed to mix,” O’Gara said a few years ago.
“I was very happy with my lot, but my eyes really got opened going to Crusaders, that’s where it all changed.”
He talked about how his mindset was turned inside out over there, about the power of real positivity and a growth mindset which was different to how he thought as a player.
With O’Gara, we don’t just get a coaching lesson but a quasi-life lesson too. But he also dares to be himself.
There was no quashing of his emotions for the TV cameras on Saturday. After the trophy-lift, he even ran in for the group photo and sat down in front of the cardboard hoarding like he used to as a player.
What keeps O’Gara compulsive viewing is we think we know what he’s going to do next but we don’t really. His stock as a head coach is only going one direction.
Only last month he spoke about how he’d “love to have a go” at the England head coach job when Eddie Jones leaves after next year’s World Cup. The IRFU need to have the ROG-cam out again. If – and hopefully, when – the day arrives that O’Gara decides the time is right to move back here to coach, it will be a very significant day for the future of Irish rugby.