Tuesday 10 December 2019

Paris broadens the mind for Munster legend Ronan O'Gara

Life outside Irish rugby's provincial vacuum has allowed Munster legend Ronan O'Gara to expand his horizons

Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton at the official opening of Laya Healthcare’s new Dublin office with Laya Healthcare team members Caitriona Coffey, Mary Forde and Marie Kelly
Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton at the official opening of Laya Healthcare’s new Dublin office with Laya Healthcare team members Caitriona Coffey, Mary Forde and Marie Kelly
Ronan O’Gara admits he's considering his future in France.
Ronan O'Gara keeps a close eye on the team’s out-half and former rival Johnny Sexton ahead of a Heineken Cup game for Racing Metro
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The stereotype is dead. He hopes so at least, hopes that any closed perception of him as a man who could only be happy in the trenches wearing Munster red has diminished now. After a year of profound self-discovery in Paris, Ronan O'Gara feels different.

He went to Racing Metro armed with his war-stories, but also, critically, the humility to learn. The rumour went that he'd gone for money when, in fact, he'd actually just thrown himself at the club's mercy, hungry to be educated in the transition from player to coach.

They agreed, essentially, to take him on trust. If nothing else, he'd be useful company as well as technical kicking support for their marquee summer signing from Leinster, but there was no grand, long-term plan for O'Gara in Paris. Not, at least, until two months into the experiment.

Then they decided he ought to be responsible for defence.

That they liked what they subsequently saw was down, above all, to the fact that he believed utterly in the message he was preaching. The defensive system O'Gara promotes is the one he came to trust implicitly when playing with Munster and Ireland. Structure may not always be the foremost aspiration of French rugby teams, but – in terms of tries conceded – Racing had the third meanest defence in Top 14 this season.

So, they've agreed a two-year deal now and, as of next season, O'Gara's will be Racing's assistant coach. Munster legend, but now a man of the world.

THIS SEASON ENDED 11 DAYS AGO with an underwhelming performance against Toulon in the Top 14 semi-final and a fleeting handshake with Johnny Sexton on the field in Lille.

"We were crap," sighed Sexton to O'Gara.

"Yeah, but you gotta just stand back and be very proud of your first season in French rugby!" he replied.

O'Gara meant it too. It feels as if they've both travelled a small eternity since that iconic Croke Park image from '09 of the two of them at war. As rivals for the Irish No 10 shirt, that felt the only sustainable way forward at the time. Ripping out the other's jugular.

It's different now. Today both recognise they need one another to thrive.

For O'Gara, the benefits accrued from gambling on his rugby future aren't strictly confined to the arithmetic of Racing's season. "If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have done it," he says candidly.

"Because it would have been easy for me to stay, take a handy year here, do a bit of media or whatever. But I like hands-on. I like to be in control of my own destination. I have to work like that.

"You know there were times when myself and Johnny were sitting on the couch in my house or his house during the year and it was a bloody lonely place. It could have been so much easier for the two of us to do the so-called norm. But they say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

"Like, it absolutely helps if you have a supportive wife, which both of us do. And, if the kids can learn French, that's something achieved, irrespective of whether Racing are playing absolute crap rugby every week.

"As a sports person, I've been the most selfish individual for the last 16 years and, to some degree, that's probably continuing.

"But you're also giving your children an opportunity in life and that's something now I really appreciate, the fact that the kids can speak French a small bit. When you come home from work and you chat to them, you can kind of be proud about that every day.

"And they speak French as French people, because the skill of young people to learn is far sharper than for adults. It's fascinating. I speak French as a Corkman, I can't do the accent. But they can roll their tongues ... you know a simple thing like that can make you happy with a day's work!"

He is father to five now after last month's arrival of Max and happy to delegate little parental chores to Sexton, himself a dad-to-be.

Through their time together in France, O'Gara has come to recognise and respect the ferocity of Sexton's focus. Recent newspaper stories of a training-ground bust-up between the Irish out-half and Racing's giant Springbok lock, Juande Kruger, hinted at that ferocity.

"Johnny is a competitor," says O'Gara flatly. "You have to understand that too. He always wants the best for his team, hence he has bust-ups with his players. But that happened in Leinster, too. It happened in Irish training sessions, it's happened at Racing. That just goes with Johnny Sexton. You need to keep it, you need to manage it.

"As I learned in the latter stages of my career, it's the ability to bring players along with you that matters. It can't be just beating with a stick. We've chatted about that. Because he's so modest, he doesn't realise how big a name he is. But with his ability to encourage the French players, he brought their game on by another 50pc.

"I think he should be very proud of what he's done.

"Maybe there were people quietly delighted at first when things didn't seem to be going great for him in France. That's the Irish mentality at times. But whether he goes back (to Ireland) or not after this, he'll still be a better player and a better person. I'd be adamant about that."

From a distance, O'Gara has watched his beloved Munster assemble a new management team made up entirely of indigenous coaches. Throughout the process, his name insinuated itself frequently into debate about the province's long-term future and life beyond the now-brewing Anthony Foley era.

It seems to be broadly assumed that, one day, O'Gara will coach Munster. And that assumption makes him moderately uneasy now.

"I've learnt so much in the last year," he says. "Probably my whole thinking has changed. Just ... you know in terms of being part of Munster and what it meant to me ... you probably could never ever show any admiration for Leinster or Ulster. But now when you're outside, you can assess things more clearly.

"If that's a step to improving, is there a possibility of working there? Maybe. These are things I wouldn't have thought of 12 months ago. But like that's the reality if you come back to Ireland, hopefully you're thought of highly enough that a professional team there would consider you too.

"Obviously, it's well documented my love for Munster, but, at the same time, it doesn't make me blinkered. You just see a far bigger picture out there now, a far more interesting side of things.

"It's very strange, because I'm completely removed from Ireland now. I rarely get back. If I get back, it's usually to Dublin to do a bit with RTE. And Dublin could be London for me. I'm from Cork, I like Cork. I like Dublin, too, but it's different.

"But if I end up back in Cork, I'm limiting myself to one job, which makes for a very short shelf life."

One thing he now understands more clearly, for sure, is how the old Heineken Cup meant different things to different people.

Through his playing career it became the great pre-occupation. Munster made their name on European glory and no player in history became more synonymous with the tournament than O'Gara. The runaway leading points-scorer in Heineken Cup rugby, he has encountered an entirely different prioritising of business in France.

There, domestic pride routinely takes precedent over European ambition. The Bouclier de Brennus is the silverware most coveted.

For a Munster man especially, that took some time to digest. "Yeah, it's unbelievable really," says O'Gara. "But you're shaped by your environment. I mean you're coming out of university into Munster. Sure the European Cup was essentially all we knew. You become brainwashed by it. I wouldn't change it either, because of the competition it was. And Munster gave more to it than any team, I still believe that.

"But teams I suppose that don't have any tradition in it ... the culture in France is the Brennus. That's where their heritage is. You have to respect that and you only appreciate it I think by living it.

"It's very easy to give an opinion on something from the outside and, yes, at times the quality is very average. But it's a slog, it's a dog of a league.

"You play in mud-baths in November and December, then you play on beautiful fast pitches around April and May. So, it tests you and it's 26 games before play-offs, a serious mental and physical challenge to win it out."

He welcomed the recent news of his old Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan's appointment as head man at Biarritz. With others like Bernard Jackman, Mike Prendergast and Jeremy Davidson also working in France and Mark McCall and Conor O'Shea making big names for themselves in England, O'Sullivan joins the list of indigenous Irish coaches now entrusted with responsibility abroad.

O'Gara considers the appointment a coup for Biarritz.

"I think it's a great scoop," he says. "People in this country are very quick to forget. Like over a five-year period, I think Eddie won four out of five Six Nations games four times.

"His thinking on how to beat England was years ahead of anyone else, the game plan he devised for that. Everyone knows how I feel. I had great time for Eddie. People found him difficult, maybe because they didn't approach Eddie. But, if you sat down with Eddie, there was never an issue.

"I liked Eddie because Eddie wanted to win on a Saturday. He didn't want to be your friend. And, for me, it was always about winning games.

"Coaching Ireland, there's a lot of pressure involved, a huge workload. Eddie couldn't be going around asking boys if they wanted to go for coffee!

"It's great for him that he's getting the opportunity now, because I think he still has a lot to offer."

HE BELIEVES IRISH RUGBY has little to fear from the shifting sands of the professional game in Europe.

It is clear the IRFU cannot compete financially with the moneyed owners of England and France and the revamped European Cup will, if anything, broaden that deficit. But O'Gara says there are "too many smart people" in Irish rugby to allow the club game here drift to the margins of European relevance.

"I mean there's 16 million people in Paris alone, 60-odd million in France," he says. "We're so small compared to that, but then when you think of what all our teams have done for the European Cup, especially Munster and Leinster. Like the French teams really rate the Irish teams.

"People think that, because a club like Toulon is so full of big names, they're there for money. But that's not necessarily the truth. I mean you look at Giteau, Masoe, Lobbe, Ali Williams, Botha ... they're performing every week.

"That's the challenge for Racing Metro now. To perform every week and see where we are in two years time."

Contrary to expectation, O'Gara says he experienced no lengthy grieving process when calling time on his own playing days. In many ways, a heroic Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Clermont in Montpellier offered the apposite final chapter to a truly remarkable career.

O'Gara played well that day, spawning the image of a great, defeated warrior being carried out on his shield. He admits his motivation to sign off well was probably heightened by the loss of his international place under Declan Kidney.

"Maybe it mightn't have ended that way if I finished normally with Ireland," he says.

"I was driven to perform to prove to the Irish selectors that they were probably wrong. That's the drive in me. You know that's the way it did finish and we were so close that day. It would have been better to go to a final, but the past is the past, I don't really look back. There's obviously things in life you could say I'd do that differently, do this differently.

"But what's next is more important for me.

"People think I went to France for money. Jesus no, I went to France to see how another club operates.

"Rugby's been very good to me and the team-mates I played with I knew how to make them tick. So, hopefully, now the trick is trying to implement that with fellas you don't know as well by getting to know them that bit better."

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