Friday 19 January 2018

'We are not a bunch of cheats at Racing 92' - Ronan O'Gara

Ronan O'Gara defends Racing trio in stressful week for club ahead of clash with old Munster colleagues. Photo: Pat Murphy/Sportsfile
Ronan O'Gara defends Racing trio in stressful week for club ahead of clash with old Munster colleagues. Photo: Pat Murphy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Before Racing 92 and Ronan O'Gara get around to dealing with Munster in Paris next Sunday, there is the thorny issue of a hearing to be squared away. On Wednesday, across town, the club will explain its side of the story on why and how three of its players - Dan Carter, Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff - had anomalies in their doping tests carried out after the French Top 14 final last June.

This position is likely to be that the players were given corticoids, or corticosteroids, for the purpose of reducing inflammation - a practice that may not require a Therapeutic Use Exemption. And that this is a country mile removed from using an anabolic steroid, which is in a different league.

"I've been in the meetings and I'm fully aware of exactly what's gone on," O'Gara says. "There's 60-80 of these administered in a year - an injection into a joint - and that's exactly what it is. Every player gets tested after a final, that's the rule. And there were three readings showing a corticoid and the readings are extremely low. And if you have an explanation as to why you administered them then it's a non-story.

"Everyone on the winning team is tested. That's normal procedure and that's another inaccuracy that's come out in the press, in terms of it being random. Every single player that wins the Top 14 gets tested.

"I've been rattled by the reaction because there's a presumption that anything goes in Racing, and a bunch of cheats won a final. So if you take pride in your work that's a massive attack on your character, and what you stand for. If I believed that there was unsporting practices accepted here I'd be out the door in the morning.

"I have no doubt that one of the challenges facing rugby is steroid abuse, but this is an anti-inflammatory. I think growth hormone is an issue in the game and it's something I feel very strong on. But to attack the character of three players like that, with very little information, is a very sad state of affairs that the game is in."

So it will likely be a stressful week for the club, compounding their slow start to the season. As champions they have had both barrels emptied into them every time they've gone on the road. Yesterday they had home comfort for the visit of Stade Francais, and will be at Colombes too for the tie with Munster.

Since the pool draw was made in June O'Gara has been getting his head around this match-up. Emotionally the fixture in Paris won't be too challenging. The place will be far from full and the atmosphere will suffer accordingly. Thomond will be a different story.

"In terms of next weekend, if there's a team coming in under the radar, with a kind of a new-felt belief, it's Munster," he says. "Depending on the injury profile we have it could be a long day because they'll have nothing to lose. I'll know exactly the mentality of the players, and the most important ingredient is hunger.

"You know what, for the return leg the great thing for me would be if it's the kind of Munster in Thomond that I played in, because that would be great for the squad here, to get a good shock about this being the real Munster in terms of a full house with an unbeatable atmosphere and the best supporters who possibly ever supported the game of rugby. That's not an exaggeration. You were there on those nights around 2000-2005 and when an English team came to town it was better than any international atmosphere."

This is his fourth season with Racing. What started as a jump off a cliff has developed into an interesting flight. To survive that period as a foreign coach in France is not bad - to do it with a club in transition, and with two fairly headstrong head coaches above him, tells you something of O'Gara's survival skills.

He believes Europe will suit this developing side because they have pace unused in the Top 14. Typically every game there is a brutal, stop-start affair, where even the heavy infantry have windows in which to recover because of the crazy amount of time wasted.

So in Europe Racing will have a go, O'Gara says. And they have got themselves well enough organised by now to sustain it.

"To be honest the environment of the club has changed completely from the club I came into, compared to what Johnny (Sexton) would have experienced or what Jamie (Roberts) would have experienced. They were tough years - no doubt about it. It's second nature to me because I have high standards: I think about creating that culture, creating that environment, but it was banging my head against the wall for a long time, and we had a lot of players who weren't up to the level or had the hunger required to win stuff. We still have a few.

"I have the two Laurents (Labit and Travers) who are obviously the head coaches, and then there's just me, and we have 40 players. In terms of managing it there's a lot of managing as well as coaching, which is something I'm interested in. You get the opportunity to work with . . . well most definitely the greatest outhalf to have ever played the game, and he has interesting thoughts. You learn a lot off fellas like Rokocoko, Imhoff, (Anthony) Tuitevaki, how South Africans do it, how Georgians do it, how Australians do it. Plus French people. It's very, very different to where I was and in terms of the coaching side of things I'm learning that as well. It's harder than you'd think in terms of having all the solutions on the tip of your tongue. Because you wouldn't know what kind of a question you'd get.

"But players need direction - and even the so-called best players in the world need direction too you'll find. What separates them is that they do the simple things very well time after time. But in terms of the shape you want to play they want to know - and if you don't know it then they will, which is a bad way to be! They've called your bluff."

To his credit, he never waltzed in like he owned the show. At the club he kept his head down, but at home it had to be emotionally draining watching his kids bawling their eyes out at the prospect of another day in a school where their classmates spoke a language they didn't understand.

"That's the great thing about rugby, and the great thing about playing for Ireland for so long: you can handle anything after it, because you're put in the most uncompromising, difficult situations," he says. "You, or a team-mate. So you get to experience the biggest highs and the greatest lows known to mankind! A week is a long time in sport and it's a long time in a foreign country. I honestly don't have a plan. Ever since Darbs (Paul Darbyshire, former Munster fitness coach) died that way of thinking is gone, y'know?

"You do the best every day now and that's basically it. You have to have a general plan, and mine is that I'm here for the next two/three years minimum because you want to be in a club that has the ability to win. And I feel this club has that. Then the other side eating away at me a little bit is that you'd love to be in the environment of Joe Schmidt. But that can't happen, y'know? You make plans but there's nothing like the now."

Now means clearing the names of three players, and a club, in the dock. If it works out then Munster may be at the receiving end on Sunday. And if it doesn't who knows, for Ronan O'Gara, what comes next.

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