Sport Rugby

Sunday 18 August 2019

Ronan O'Gara's glass is half-full as he sizes up next challenge

Munster the ultimate goal but La Rochelle's new coach says he's keen to hit ground running after busy summer

Ronan O’Gara at the launch of Energia’s new rugby communication campaign yesterday. Photo: Billy Strickland/INPHO
Ronan O’Gara at the launch of Energia’s new rugby communication campaign yesterday. Photo: Billy Strickland/INPHO

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Ronan O'Gara looks down from the Old Wesley clubhouse and watches the young men of the Leinster sub-Academy run back and forth across the astroturf at Energia Park as the sun beats down on their backs.

"I tell you what lads, I don't miss that!" he chuckles as he sips from his coffee and takes his seat at the table.

These days he's the man with the whistle, rather than the one under the gun.

In Dublin to launch the #PositiveEnergy campaign, the 128-times-capped former out-half is still finding his feet after leaving the Crusaders' Super Rugby celebrations to start a new life on France's west coast.

Skipped

Not that he skipped the party altogether; he took his leave on day four and packed up his family for the long-haul flight to Paris. There, he cleared out his house and set off for La Rochelle where he'll spend the next three seasons.

He can't settle in fully just yet.

The plan is to live on Île de Ré, but the summer is in full flow and accommodation won't become available for another month or so when the tourists clear out. So, it's temporary digs for now.

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All the while, the unremitting French treadmill begins to crank up again with the season starting in less than four weeks' time when O'Gara's new side kick off their campaign away to Clermont Auvergne.

He's only spent a week in his new home and the hectic schedule allowed him one opportunity to walk the streets of the city. Within minutes, he was bring recognised. A change from his former French base of Paris where he spent five seasons with Racing 92.

He's back in the heartlands.

"There is a feel of a rugby town about the place," he says. "So in that regard, and even just talking to the staff, the people that work in the centre, that they love their rugby."

Steeped in Munster lore, he's got a taste of how the other half live under Scott Robertson at the Crusaders; collecting back-to-back Super Rugby titles in a two-year spell that couldn't have gone better.

"It was brilliant, in everything," he says of the New Zealand stint.

"You know, I think whatever way we were in Irish sport in our generation, maybe a glass half-empty, kind of. Maybe afraid of winning. That's all gone, you know? It has become far more positive. Which is great.

"There's a difference between cockiness and positivity; a huge difference. I think you just have to be confident, you have to be positive. All the players get direction from your body language.

"So, it becomes very obvious I think, that I need to carry myself well every day. And then there is the human side of it, and there's a coaching side.

"You will always get better at the Joe Schmidt detail, shall we say, but I think what is hugely important in the club game, because there is nearly two different games going on at the moment, there is Test and club rugby.

"Our challenge too will be getting the recruitment right, which is a skill in itself, which I am not experienced at, but I need to get at. Because they still have big budgets, so you can go after players as well. That makes it quite interesting.

Strength

"If you look after your academy, your academy will look after you. The strength of all the teams I played in were local players. So you need to get that as best you can in a Top 14 club."

"Our first game is Clermont away... but before, maybe my previous mindset, I would have been, 'Oh, what a start!' Now it excites me because if you're worried or negative about it, it will creep into other people. You've just got to embrace these things."

La Rochelle secured his signature last summer, but there were options a-plenty.

"I think that's what happens a lot of coaches when they go to the Crusaders - a lot of players as well, they have options," he concedes.

"I don't know what side of the ball I prefer, attack or defence, so I'm going to coach both or try to coach both at La Rochelle.

"That will speed up (the process of) making it clear in my mind which I prefer coaching, with a global vision in mind too.

"It's a really tight, small coaching ticket at the minute with Jono (Gibbes) as director of rugby, me, a forwards' coach and a throwing coach."

Most assume that O'Gara's ultimate destination as a coach is Munster and, as luck would have it, his contract expires at the same time as Johann van Graan's current deal.

Yet life is rarely that simple or symmetrical and, while he wants to get back to his home province one day, he knows there are no guarantees.

"I don't know (what will happen) but I am a positive person," he says when asked if the stars will align.

"You know home is home and Munster is my home so, in that regard, it is something that you would love to do, but I think in this game the 'now' is so important... it just flies like that (clicks fingers).

"I don't really sit around and think about it too often. If that is to happen it will be obvious when it will happen.

"So, I don't get stressed about it, I am just focused on now and trying to do the best I can in my La Rochelle job."

Right now, the coaching ticket at Munster is made up of two South Africans, an Australian and an Englishman. All are high-calibre appointments, but for the first time the set-up lacks a local voice.

"They need to get Munster people in there, but if they are backing a South African coach then he needs to trust the people he is working with so it is essentially his staff and that's how professional sport works," O'Gara shrugs.

"You need a really aligned management team to get the best out of your players so for me that is the road they have gone down.

"Johann is their man and he is making his appointments with the backing of the Munster board."

He references Mike Prendergast, Mossy Lawlor, Paul O'Connell, Denis Leamy and James Coughlan as examples of former team-mates who could add value, but he is highly positive about the potential impact of new arrival Stephen Larkham who brings an "aura" that can inspire the Munster backs.

For now, he'll observe Munster at a distance because his main focus is on hitting the ground running at La Rochelle as he embarks on the next chapter of a fascinating coaching career.

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