Saturday 19 October 2019

Successful Crusaders stint sets O'Gara up well for French test

Assistant coach Ronan O’Gara of the Crusaders and his children pose with the Super Rugby trophy in the changing room after winning the final against the Jaguares. Photo: Getty
Assistant coach Ronan O’Gara of the Crusaders and his children pose with the Super Rugby trophy in the changing room after winning the final against the Jaguares. Photo: Getty
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Ronan O'Gara will depart Christchurch on Wednesday as a double Super Rugby winner and with his reputation even greater than when he arrived in New Zealand last year.

A new challenge awaits in La Rochelle and make no mistake about it, that will be a much tougher test than what he faced with arguably the best club team in the world.

A serial winner as a player, there is something in the DNA when it comes to O'Gara, as he added a third league title to his rapidly growing coaching CV when the Crusaders beat the Jaguares in Saturday's Super Rugby final.

There will naturally be a degree of trepidation as he walks away from the Crusaders, where he has spent the last two years working with world-class players and coaches every day.

Up to this point, O'Gara's coaching career has been all about soaking up as much information as possible at the highest level before taking the next step to becoming a head coach.

While the structure at La Rochelle will see the 42-year old become just that, everything he does will be overseen by Jono Gibbes as director of rugby. It will be fascinating to see how that dynamic plays out.

Coming from the Crusaders, O'Gara will be eager to ensure that he is given the freedom to instil a similar kind of culture at the French club.

That will be easier said then done and while La Rochelle have plenty of overseas players, it may be tough to change the French way of thinking.

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The way O'Gara will see it, though, with a former All Black running the entire operation, Gibbes will want his new man to bring as much of that famed Crusaders culture as possible.

So, what is it that makes the Crusaders environment so special?

Having a plethora of first-choice All Blacks certainly helps, but they do seem to do things differently under Scott Robertson, who looks a future New Zealand coach lying in wait.

That a coach of Robertson's stature wanted to bring O'Gara to Christchurch in the first place spoke volumes for what he saw in him, because, as we know, the Kiwis aren't usually that open to having 'outsiders' join their clubs.

It's part of what makes the aura around the All Blacks unique, but O'Gara has helped break down that barrier and even though it is unlikely to result in a host of foreign coaches being welcomed into New Zealand with open arms, the former Ireland out-half has shown what is possible.

One of the biggest things that the Crusaders are renowned for is their 'theming', which essentially involves looking at other sports and adapting their ideas to a rugby environment.

Inside the Crusaders inner sanctum, videos and pictures are often used instead of long speeches by coaches - O'Gara will look to do something similar in La Rochelle.

By his own admission, the first three months in Christchurch were difficult. O'Gara was under no illusions that he was an outsider, yet that didn't stop him getting his ideas across.

Back in Racing, O'Gara had a specialist who would clip certain video footage that he picked out, but in the Crusaders there is a huge emphasis placed on coaches doing that themselves, so Robertson took him out of his comfort zone in that regard.

On the other hand, from O'Gara's point of view, when he arrived from France he had been focusing on the defensive side of the game.

The Crusaders felt like they had that figured out, especially after the work that the hugely-regarded Wayne Smith had done with the club over the years.

However, O'Gara forced them to rethink how they defended and Robertson was only too happy to listen to him. After-all, that is why he recruited him in the first place.

When defending, the Crusaders would generally watch the man, whereas O'Gara was keen to put a greater emphasis on the ball.

Robertson made what he perceived to be the necessary tweaks and for the second season running, his side boasted the best defensive record in Super Rugby.

It hasn't just been defence where O'Gara has excelled, however, and you only have to listen to the glowing praise that some of the best players in the world bestowed on him in terms of the attacking edge that he has brought.

Richie Mo'unga was always destined for big things, but the out-half's remarkable improvement since O'Gara joined the club has certainly not been a coincidence.

Mo'unga has enjoyed another stunning season and is making a major push to play a central role for the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, as well as the World Cup this year.

By then O'Gara will be well settled in the South of France - even if there are only nine days between the Super Rugby final and the start of his pre-season with La Rochelle.

There has never been time to stand still in the world of Ronan O'Gara and now is no different.

He will barely have time to reflect on what he has achieved with the Crusaders over the last two seasons, but when he does, O'Gara will realise that his outlook on the game will have been completely reshaped, which in the long run could well be the making of him.

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