Noel McNamara once advised students at Clongowes Wood College to “make your obsession your profession”.
It’s fair to say that he’s lived that philosophy, leaving a permanent, pensionable position as a teacher to adopt, full-time, a different vocation as a professional rugby coach.
The Clare native has taken to a road less travelled, to North Harbour in New Zealand, the Sharks in Durban and, since the summer, a new role as attack coach with Bordeaux-Begles in the French Top 14; one that has made all the difference.
On Friday night he’ll return to the familiar environs of the Sportsground as Bordeaux visit Galway for their opening match in the Investec Champions Cup. There’ll be a few familiar faces in the Connacht group, players that McNamara helped develop in a previous life as head coach with several national squads, including the 2019 Under-20 Grand Slam winners.
Serendipity played a part in the more recent leg of his travels, taking him from South Africa to France. Former Toulouse and French international hooker Yannick Bru spent last season as breakdown coach at the Sharks but was then offered the head coach job at Bordeaux. He persuaded McNamara and forwards coach Akvsenti Giorgadze to swap Durban for the west coast of France.
In McNamara’s case, it was pushing against an open door to a point. He loved his time in South Africa, the people, players, the country and the weather but the URC fixture schedule meant that he could occasionally be away from his wife, Sinead and three young daughters for a month at a time when the Sharks fulfilled fixtures in Europe, a tough ask with no extended family support structure.
He admitted: “The opportunity to come a little closer to home was a big driver in the decision. I could have stayed with the Sharks for another two years but ultimately the challenges of travel were pretty significant. It [the offer] aligned [with a decision to move back closer to home]. I have always been intrigued by the French way.”
There were obstacles, not least the fact that he didn’t speak French, having studied German at school. Learning the French language was non-negotiable.
“Yannick Bru said from the outset that I want you to coach in French, present in French, I want everything in French. I did a Zoom call before I arrived. I got off the phone and said to Sinead, ‘I am goosed’. I did not understand anything. I went on a massive crash course to learn French.
“I present and coach in French, it is a challenge around the simplicity of the language, the simplicity of the message, the clarity of the message, the absence of grey areas. That has been a great challenge. My French has improved. I can get by. The next level to unlock is the ability to converse freely.”
Life away from rugby is good, a house in the city and the facility for McNamara to cycle to work and the girls to school; those details mean he has been able to concentrate on rugby, knowing that his family have settled nicely.
One of the initial attractions of Bordeaux was the calibre of player, particularly the talent in the backline.
“Mathieu [Jalibert] and Damian [Penaud] are obvious talents but there are some fantastic young players here as well. You can speak about other high-profile names like Yoram Moefana and Louis Bielle-Biarrey, but Nicolas Depoortere was captain of the French Under-20s. He has played regularly for us at 13 this season.
“Someone like Pablo Uberti, who had a challenging time with injury last season but has come back very strong. It’s been a pleasure to work with them.”
McNamara (42) is different as a coach to the one that coached in Glenstal Abbey, Clongowes, Leinster A or the person who was the province’s academy manager. His time in South Africa made him think differently on and off the pitch.
“Building a connection with people is so important. South Africa is an incredible, diverse country, with people from all backgrounds, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaners and from overseas as well. It was a brilliant learning opportunity; learning from those people who had experienced rugby in lots of different ways was an incredibly enjoyable part of it.
“I was challenged to simplify how I thought about and presented the game, having previously believed, ‘This is the way the game should be played.’ It opened my eyes a little bit that the importance is not what you do, but how and why you do it. That is something that came to the fore.”
His vision of rugby marries with the philosophy at Bordeaux.
“The defence gives you your attack. I know from my maths background that pitches are pretty big, so it is impossible to cover all the space. The game is about 15 players trying to close your space, deny you space, and the attack is trying to find it.
“A framework is about being able to attack from all the different sources of possession, create opportunities and have the ability to exploit them. I don’t think you want to overcoach the calibre of players that are here. It is about creating an environment where you can bring out the best in everybody.”
McNamara has been hugely impressed by Connacht under their new coaching cadre. He’s had a word with the Bordeaux players about tonight’s venue.
“The Sportsground is a special challenge. On a Friday night, with a full house under lights it will be fantastic. It’s trying to paint the picture as best you can for the players as to what that contest is going to be about.
“I heard [Connacht assistant coach] Collie Tucker speak passionately about the scrum recently, but he made the point that rugby is a contest at every source of possession. That’s exactly what Connacht will bring, they will battle at every lineout, scrum, ruck, maul, restart and tackle.”
Forewarned certainly, but forearmed? Friday night will tell a tale.