Sunday 22 July 2018

'Coaching at home my long-term ambition'

Prendergast continues to enhance his reputation in France with Oyonnax

Former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast prepares to welcome Connacht to Oyonnax this weekend. Photo by Dave Winter/Icon Sport
Former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast prepares to welcome Connacht to Oyonnax this weekend. Photo by Dave Winter/Icon Sport
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Little did Mike Prendergast know at the time that his French sojourn 11 years ago would be the start of a very different chapter in his life.

A season spent playing with Bourgoin gave the former Munster scrum-half a taste of French life and it was enough for him to want to return for more.

After four years working with Grenoble in a variety of roles, Prendergast now finds himself in Oyonnax, as the club's attack and backs coach.

That the Limerick native still finds himself in France is as much down to the lack of opportunities in Ireland as it is his desire to get some hands-on, professional coaching experience.

Working as Young Munster's director of rugby set the platform and while roles with Munster's 'A' team and schools in Limerick whet the appetite, Prendergast was always ambitious enough to want more.

That ambition stems from his playing days. After all, that is how Prendergast first ended up in France and later with Gloucester as he refused to settle for being Munster's second-choice No 9 behind Peter Stringer.

"I had a couple of injuries when I was playing so I started off coaching a small bit with the club and schools," Prendergast recalls.

"Just helping out here and there. Even when I played abroad in France and England, I did bits with the academies. Then I was fortunate enough that Young Munster offered me a full-time role. That got me onto the coaching ladder and then I did a bit with Munster 'A'."

From there, Prendergast linked up with Bernard Jackman in Grenoble and while the Irish pair did a remarkable job, it ended on somewhat of a sour note earlier this year.

Jackman lost his job as head coach which left Prendergast, who had initially been hired as a skills coach, to take over the reins.

It was very much sink or swim and although a couple of early wins steadied the ship, the writing had long been on the wall and the club were relegated to Pro D2.

"I had four years there and, to be honest with you, I thoroughly enjoyed the first three years," Prendergast maintains.

"The last year was difficult for different reasons, on the pitch, off the pitch.

"We had financial problems at the start of the season which didn't make things easy but you know what, that's a learning experience. When Bernard left, that was tough because you arrive in the following day and your head coach is gone.

"It's a big job, there is an awful lot to learn as a head coach. I got a taste for it there at the end of last year, in difficult circumstances.

"It's something that I would like to do. Not now, but in a couple of years because I think you're always learning. Especially over here in France with clubs that you are up against, teams with much bigger budgets.

"To be a head coach is a marathon, not a sprint. It's something I would definitely like in the future but for the next couple of years, I'm just enjoying being an attack coach and trying to implement a good system."

Oyonnax are in many ways similar to Grenoble. The quiet town, which is sandwiched between Lyon and Geneva, is rugby-mad and while the club is ambitious, they are also very realistic.

Sealing promotion to the Top 14 this season was the start of their latest project and Prendergast was recruited to take charge of their attack.

Oyonnax, who are currently 12th in the Top 14, are operating on the joint-lowest budget in the French top flight and while Prendergast knew the scale of the challenge he was taking on, it is another that will provide him with valuable experience in his long-term quest to return home.

"Traditionally, Oyonnax would have been a team who were very forward-oriented," the 40-year old explains. "They played a direct game and when they installed the 4G pitch, their game had to evolve. They wanted to put a bit of width and pace on the ball so that's something we're working on.

"There's been some success, there are other things we need to improve but we're less than three-and-a-half months at it. We're definitely heading in the right direction.

"From a living point of view, especially after losses, there is no getting away from it. You live with the people everyday."

When Prendergast left Grenoble during the summer, there were other offers on the table. Having the option to join the Premiership and the Top 14 was a nice position to be in but ultimately it wasn't Ireland.

"I think anyone who says otherwise wouldn't be talking the truth," he admits when asked if returning home is still his ultimate goal.

"Sometimes it's like a player when he heads off for a couple of years, if there is an opportunity to come back then absolutely.

"But definitely for a coach, it's a great experience over here. I speak to the likes of ROG regularly and he'll tell you the same thing.

"I'm getting exposed to different coaches and different ways of doing things but yeah, I wouldn't lie, if the opportunity (in Ireland) came up, it's something that would definitely interest me for sure."

Connacht arrive in Oyonnax for their Challenge Cup opener on Saturday and it provides Prendergast with a chance to remind the Irish public that he is one of many young Irish coaches taking the road less travelled.

"I won't shy away from it, the Top 14 is obviously our priority," he adds. "If there is no Top 14, there is no Europe the following year.

"I've been very impressed with Connacht, especially over the last couple of weeks. They play a really good and dangerous brand of rugby. They're not far off clicking and I'm really hoping they don't click this weekend."

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