Sunday 27 May 2018

Ronan O'Gara can kick on in his crusade to be top coach

Christchurch the perfect breeding ground - and former Ireland star will relish challenge

Ronan O’Gara
Ronan O’Gara
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The coach factory in Canterbury on New Zealand's South Island has another gem to polish. The region that has produced Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Robbie Deans among many, many others will take Ronan O'Gara into its bosom this January.

As assistant to charismatic former All Black Scott Robertson, the record Irish point-scorer will walk into a dressing-room of winners.

At just 40, the former out-half is amassing a post-playing curriculum vitae of real substance. He already has a Top 14 title under his belt as assistant coach at Racing 92; now he heads to one of the brand leaders in club rugby across the world.

He'll like what he sees, but he'll also recognise the challenge.

He has been that soldier. The experienced leader of a winning dressing-room testing out the new guy to see if he lives up to the hype.

That's what he wants at this point of his coaching career: new experiences and tough dressing-rooms.

All Blacks like Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Sam Whitelock and Joe Moody will see a spoofer coming. You need your detail on point, you need to know your stuff. Promising talents with international ambitions like Richie Mo'anga and Jack Goodhue will demand that he helps them get better.

In former New Zealand full-back Leon MacDonald, O'Gara is replacing a man even the Kiwis respect as a great rugby mind.

Having experienced the French approach in Paris since 2013, he enters the turbo-charged arena of Super Rugby.

Long-haul

His work with Racing will continue until after Christmas, at which point he'll board the long-haul flight to his new home.

Pre-season begins at the end of this month, so he'll be playing catch-up, but Skype and WhatsApp have made the world a smaller place and he'll be in constant contact with Robertson, who was in Ireland earlier this month to coach the Barbarians against Tonga and took in the Ireland v South Africa game alongside Doug Howlett.

Connections are everywhere. Dan Carter is certain to have played a role after playing under his former opposite number for two seasons; Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek is Robertson's best mate and old team-mate at the Crusaders. It would be no surprise if it emerged Joe Schmidt had vouched for him.

Financially, he'll take a hit but this is a long-term investment in his coaching career that should reap plenty of reward down the line. Sure, he's taking a pay-cut and his commercial and media work will be impacted, but the experience will be worth it.

Since the dawn of professionalism, the Crusaders have led the game worldwide. Although this year's title was their first Super Rugby title since 2008 it was their eighth in total. No-one else has won more than three.

Consistent excellence means they remain a scalp. The Lions' win in Christchurch was seen as a real coup, given the home side fielded an all-All Black pack.

From a lifestyle perspective, O'Gara is swapping arguably the world's greatest city for a place that is still under construction after being levelled in 2012. Even the Crusaders' home ground, the AAMI Stadium, remains a temporary structure that somehow generates an atmosphere.

While Paris offered culture, nightlife and historic sights, Christchurch offers stunning scenery and a laid-back lifestyle. The threat of earthquakes remains, but there are many reasons people run the risk.

However, the off-pitch attractions are way down the O'Gara priority list. Rugby is the reason he is moving across the world, and no matter how the next two seasons go he'll be the better of it.

In Paris, he has been exposed to the challenges of coaching in France. Working with the two Laurents, Labit and Travers, he was handed more responsibility than the expected initially but thrived in the environment.

Initially hired as a kicking coach to help out with Johnny Sexton's transition, he has out-lasted his former rival by two and a half seasons.

He is held in such high regard that owner Jacky Lorenzetti agreed to release him from a contract that still had a season and a half to run to allow him pursue the opportunity.

At Racing, he worked with world-class players from across the world - managing big egos on bigger salaries. In Christchurch, it will be a more homogeneous environment. In Irish prop Oli Jager, he has one man who will understand his Cork lilt, but the rest of the squad are drawn from across New Zealand, plus two Fijians and a Samoan.

His international achievements will be noted, but Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Whitelock and Read have two World Cup medals each; 128 caps with Ireland will only cut so much ice.

In Robertson, he'll meet one of rugby's more laid-back characters - but that shouldn't detract from his excellent record developing talent.

A back-row who won 23 caps for the All Blacks, he has taken charge of the New Zealand U-20s and the Canterbury province before taking over the Crusaders.

'Razor' inspires loyalty in his players and the sight of them gathering around their coach as he break-danced on the Ellis Park turf after securing the Super Rugby title was something to behold.

He'll be a perfect foil for O'Gara's intensity around matches and meticulous preparation.

The former Ireland No 10 will look for opportunities to develop the attacking side of his coaching game, having already honed a defensive game-plan.

He left his two-week stint with Ireland in June with a fully filled-out notebook and an open line to Schmidt. He also regularly talks to Paul O'Connell, the man with whom he hopes to one day lead Munster.

His ambition to come home and coach his home province is a naked one, but it is not urgent.

Coaching is a long-game, there is no rush to the top.

He will watch from afar as Johann van Graan acclimatises to Limerick in his first job as a head coach, coping with a work-load that Anthony Foley freely conceded became too much for him.

He has seen his old coaches Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney fall on to the scrap-heap after leaving the Ireland job. Time is on his side.

So, he heads for New Zealand for a year at least and, all going well, he'll stay for a while longer.

When the time eventually comes to return home, he'll be a more rounded coach for the experience.

During his playing career, you could never question O'Gara's bravery. This move is in keeping with that spirit.

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