Gerry Thornley: Ronan O’Gara has all the makings of a great Ireland coach

He is signed to another three years with La Rochelle, but from here anything is possible

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara. Photograph:  Dan Sheridan/Inpho

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Back in the day when Munster held real, live media days in Musgrave Park, as well as Thomond Park, the windows in the Dolphin clubhouse were invariably open and the appointed interview upstairs room could be a cold, draughty place. The late, great Munster press officer Pat Geraghty would inform us about 10 minutes before the start of proceedings who was holding court and one day informed us: “It’ll be Rog up today.”

‘Nuff said. Audiences with the great man were usually worth the trip. Immediately you made sure both Dictaphones had space and weren’t low on battery, and pondered what subjects to raise. Occasionally, he might be a little grumpy or slow into his stride, but there would easily be two meaty pieces from the 10 or 15 minutes he held court.

Every question was given due consideration before O’Gara gave his considered answer. There was very little wastage, if any, and it was never dull.

So it is in his role as a TV or radio pundit/analyst. Aside from being naturally inclined to talk freely, O’Gara is conscious that many viewers or listeners, especially on Six Nations days, will be casual supporters. He reasons that they deserve the best analysis he can provide.

O’Gara’s stellar playing career and high profile has facilitated his coaching pathway

It always seemed that a post-playing career role in punditry would come easily to him and so it has proved. But the demands of his coaching career have prevented this from being his full-time occupation, and in light of his new, enhanced role at La Rochelle as head of performance from next season onwards, the longer that remains the case the better.

Masterclass

O’Gara’s coaching career to date has been anything but conventional. He had confirmed his retirement following Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final defeat in Montpellier, a little farewell masterclass, toward the end of the 2012-13 season.

Moments before Leinster hosted Stade Français in the European Challenge Cup final at the RDS on a gloriously sunny Friday evening in May, Racing 92 made the stunning announcement that he would be joining their staff as kicking coach on an initial two-year deal.

By then it had long been known that his arch playing rival, Johnny Sexton, would be their outhalf for the following two seasons as well. You couldn’t have scripted it.

O’Gara quickly upgraded his basic command of French (good enough for him to have given many interviews to the French media over the years in his playing career) to become fluent as his responsibilities grew to take in the role of defence coach. In his third season there Racing won their first Bouclier de Brennus in 26 years with a dramatic 29-21 win in front of almost 100,000 at the Camp Nou despite playing over an hour with 14 men.

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara and directer of rugby Jono Gibbes at Statde Marcel-Michelin in August 2018. Photograph: Luttiau Nicolas/Inpho
La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara and directer of rugby Jono Gibbes at Statde Marcel-Michelin in August 2018. Photograph: Luttiau Nicolas/Inpho

His second coaching role was leftfield too, joining the Crusaders in Canterbury as assistant/backs coach for two years, during which time they twice retained their Super Rugby crowns, whereupon he returned to the Top14 as head coach with La Rochelle for the last two seasons.

O’Gara’s stellar playing career and high profile has facilitated his coaching pathway. Clearly, though, his move to Christchurch was also helped by his bond with Dan Carter, which is evidence of O’Gara’s ability to build strong relationships.

While his profile in Ireland has possibly helped to downplay the role of Gibbes at La Rochelle, there’s no doubting O’Gara’s influence

No less than his director of rugby, Jono Gibbes, at La Rochelle until the season’s end when he moves on to Clermont, in all of this O’Gara understands this coaching lark is a marathon, not a sprint. There would have been other coaching roles along the way which he didn’t take up. He is, after all, a cute Corkman.

There is a manifest belief, not just hope and not just held in Munster, that O’Gara has the credentials to be a seriously successful coach both for his province and for his country, but the longer he builds toward that the better.

Deep knowledge

His playing career, deep knowledge of the game, intelligence and relationship-building also suggest as much, but his courageous choices are also making him a more rounded, experienced coach. His two years in the Crusaders were transformative, as evidenced by that little gem of a post-match interview with BT Sport after La Rochelle’s away win against Gloucester when admitting his time in New Zealand had made him a discipline of their KBA (keep ball alive) philosophy. His treks to Fiji while with the Crusaders also helped him to understand their players’ mentality.

While his profile in Ireland has possibly helped to downplay the role of Gibbes at La Rochelle, there’s no doubting O’Gara’s influence. His stature alone would command respect from his players, if only for all he has achieved himself, but he’s clearly injected some of that Crusaders-like swagger and self-belief.

Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O’Gara at Christchurch Stadium, New Zealand in April 2019. Photograph: Martin Hunter/Photosport/Inpho
Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O’Gara at Christchurch Stadium, New Zealand in April 2019. Photograph: Martin Hunter/Photosport/Inpho

A la the Crusaders, La Rochelle play like a team whose training and preparation are almost wholly focused on themselves, on how they’re going to defend and particularly attack; and, as they again showed when pulling away from Sale in the quarter-finals, they are a very proactive team.

O’Gara’s stamp was also all over the two set-piece tries, a relative rarity in the modern game, in that second half against Sale. As an aside, Jules Plisson had looked reborn, indeed remade, under O’Gara’s influence until his recent hamstring injury.

Admittedly, the prospect of a Champions Cup semi-final with Leinster might well demand that they pay more attention to their opponents this week.

His new three-year deal with La Rochelle offers a degree of stability for himself, Jess and their five children, who are aged between seven and 12, all speak French and are happy in their home and schools. It will also stem the speculation about O’Gara pitching up in Munster anytime soon.

But while the announcement of O’Gara’s promotion was widely hailed, a word of caution: the Premier League-like circus that is the Top 14 is a hard place for overseas coaches.

The buck will now stop with him like never before. Having reached their first-ever Champions Cup semi-final, La Rochelle also stand second in the Top 14 and are thus well placed to reach the semi-finals domestically too. Whatever else they achieve this season, the bar has been set very high, and the Top 14 is the most competitive and unpredictable domestic competition in the world.

All that said and done, it will be a surprise if he doesn’t coach Ireland one day.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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