Wednesday 16 October 2019

Tony Ward: Could Racing bring O'Gara out of retirement if Sexton picks up an injury?

Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara
Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara

If you think the news of Ronan O'Gara's imminent departure to Racing Metro caught the IRFU and Munster by surprise, then put yourself in Jonny Sexton's shoes.

Now that it's a done deal, we can assess the ramifications of a decision which, without wishing to be too melodramatic, has rocked Irish rugby.

I doubt anyone, not even O'Gara himself, saw this one coming. That said, given the fickle nature of the business, when an opportunity like this comes along, you must grab it.

Whether it is the right decision to make the move from playing to coaching, only time will tell, but certainly on the evidence of this European campaign I believe that – much like his great friend Brian O'Driscoll – the Munster out-half had one more year of playing left in him, particularly without the added burden of being involved with the national team.

That is the one decision I hope he doesn't come to regret because one thing's for sure, O'Gara will be retired long enough, and absolutely nothing substitutes for being on that pitch.

Playing is all about getting the best out of yourself, whereas coaching revolves around getting the best out of others.

Coaching is a different discipline entirely, with brilliance on the pitch no guarantee of making a successful transition to the sidelines; although being as good a player as O'Gara was is undeniably a pretty handy starting point.

From a Munster perspective, I suspect Rob Penney and Simon Mannix will have mixed emotions.

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Yes, they will of course concede they've lost one of the all-time greats, and a hugely influential figure within the provincial set-up, but given their stated desire to change the playing strategy and traditions of a lifetime, the hidden positives might well outweigh the more obvious negatives.

Certainly for Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan, it's a good news day.

In relation to Sexton, the soon-to-be Racing Metro kicking coach has already got the 'best of buddies' line out there.

"The relationship has come full circle," said O'Gara over the weekend. Perhaps not quite full circle but in the best interest of both high-profile individuals, plus the man who will call this particular tune, paymaster in chief Jacky Lorenzetti, the past has to be the past.

Put simply, Sexton and O'Gara will get on but, whatever the spin, rest assured the former has had to draw breath these last few days.

In shifting from Cork to Paris with Jessica and their young family, O'Gara is making a career-oriented move for which he is to be admired.

Having a good grasp of the language is a big plus, with the reported salary probably three times more than he would have received for a one-year playing extension at Munster.

AMBITION

Money talks, but considering O'Gara's ambition to coach, I suspect that it will be the experience of the Top 14 (much like Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast at Grenoble) and perhaps even more so his involvement with the Espoirs (youths/academy) that will prove a terrific learning ground for the Corkman.

O'Gara himself has said: "There isn't much coaching left in Jonny, to be honest."

While working with Richie Murphy and Mark Tainton at Leinster and Ireland respectively, Sexton has also been benefiting from the advice of acknowledged kicking guru Dave Alred.

It was a chance meeting with the England and former Lions kicking coach while on holidays that alerted me to his influential role.

So, unless the St Mary's man – who is making a fair fist of kicking for province and country – wants his brain fried through information overload, I suggest that in his overall summing up of Sexton's kicking needs, O'Gara has got it just about right.

They have not been bosom buddies up until now, but O'Gara and Sexton are united in the Racing cause and are bound to help each other settle in to a whole new culture and way of life.

My only concern – and I'm sure it has already crossed Sexton's mind – centres around what happens if the Ireland and Lions incumbent picks up an injury.

So you're Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, the new coaching duo at the club, and you have the highest points-scorer in European rugby history at the club kicking his heels on the sideline with the Espoirs – would the obvious question not cross your mind?

Now put yourself in Sexton's shoes. Might he not be thinking the same? Not for a moment would I dare draw comparison between the rivalry of today and that of Ollie Campbell and yours truly in our time, but there is one eerie parallel.

Back in 1982 when I was re-locating from Limerick to Dublin and having been a guest alongside Campbell when playing for Old Belvedere against the Wolfhounds in an exhibition game, I seriously contemplated transferring from Dooradoyle to Anglesea Road.

A great mutual friend of ours, Paddy Madigan – sadly no longer with us – was the Belvo link.

George Hook and Frank Mullen were the Labit and Travers of that time, moving up from the club's successful McCorry Cup U-19 team of '82 to coach the firsts.

I met with George over a long lunch in the city centre and he made a pretty good fist of selling the then relatively unknown New Zealand five-eighth system (of dual out-halves), but in the end common sense prevailed.

Two into one wouldn't go and so I returned to St Mary's until Paul Dean and I encountered the same out-half conundrum at Templeville some three years later.

Such a scenario might be well off the Racing radar just now, but who knows what the future holds?

Imagine there's a top-of-the-table Top 14 match against Toulouse for a place in the play-offs for the Bouclier De Brennus, Sexton is injured and O'Gara is, well, there.

You're on the Racing coaching ticket – what would you do? Would Sexton have signed on the dotted line originally without first defining his hitherto great rival's now very relevant role? You couldn't make it up.

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