O'Gara: Foley death hard for ex-players because ‘we’re on our own’

Racing coach prepares to renew old acquaintances with Munster in Champions Cup

Ronan O’Gara: “I think that’s what separates Munster from anywhere else in the world; the bond between the supporters and the team.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ronan O'Gara's disappointment with the premature ending of Racing's hopes of qualification after back-to-back defeats to Glasgow was palpable. He has made more appearances (110) than any other player in the tournament's history, and with a phenomenal 1,365 points has scored almost 500 points more than the man in second place, Stephen Jones. O'Gara will likely remain there for ever more.

“We did buy into it,” he says of Racing’s underwhelming Euro adventure after reaching last season’s final. “We weren’t good enough. Glasgow beat us and were the better team on both days for the 80 minutes. They were very hungry in Colombes. We nearly broke them but they hung in there and hung in there and squeezed us mentally and physically, and beat us. Then on the synthetic [Scotstoun] pitch they were far too smart and good to us.”

In any event, today’s encounter with ‘his’ province is new, unwelcome territory in many ways.

Ronan O’Gara celebrates with Anthony Foley after scoring his try in a Heineken Cup game against Castres in 2000. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“From a competitive point of view it’s incredibly disappointing that there’s nothing at stake,” says O’Gara. “I think it’s the first time in whatever amount of years involved in the European Cup that it’s a dead rubber. I have never played a dead rubber in a pool game in my life.”


In 110 games over 16 campaigns as a player, not one dead rubber.

By contrast, this game has considerably more meaning for Munster.

“It’s probably fate in one way for Munster. I mean, it’s crazy to think that Racing are out and Munster are top of the group. Going back six months ago, everybody would have thought it would have been the opposite. But that’s the beauty of the game we play.”

Heavily poignant

The circumstances of the game also make it heavily poignant, and in a unique way for O’Gara. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot too, and I think the biggest thing for me is that the Munster squad get to deal with it in their way, and they’re all together, and they still have that great bond with supporters. There’s strength in numbers.

“But I think it’s extremely tough for ex-players because we’re on our own; people are forgetting the guys who played with Axel. There’s no dressing-room scenario for us to talk about it. This has happened and we were in a daze when it happened in Killaloe and buried him. Then all of a sudden you have to go back to wherever you are. Obviously you’ve your wives to talk with, but I think it’s very difficult for all that team of ex-players to deal with because I think it’s hit us all hard.”

Indeed, having made the decision to play Glasgow at Thomond Park the day after Anthony Foley’s funeral, the current squad drew strength in extreme adversity, and, in looking back to Foley’s career as player and coach, they haven’t looked back.

"No, they haven't looked back and it's brilliant. They obviously had a player-coach relationship with Axel, bar Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan and a few others who had played with him, but those of us who played with him would see Axel in a different way, and that's why it's incredibly sad. But the new players have definitely kick-started something incredible, and it's fantastic to see that the real Munster is back."

Thomond Park has also re-discovered its 16th man.

“That’s always been Munster’s strength. If you go back over the years Munster at home with a crowd like that is worth 10 points. I know it better than anyone. It’s amazing what a crowd can do to lift you. You do things that you thought was never possible with 20,000 people willing you on and there is something crazily good about that ground in terms of a European Cup night. It’s like no other ground; it’s better than any Test ground ever was.”

Opposition dug-out

O’Gara returns there to sample the opposition dug-out for the first time a fortnight hence.

“Thomond Park will be special I think. I’m sure when I get off the bus in Thomond Park the memories will come flooding back. Every player thinks the generation he played in was brilliant and you can’t fault that, but I don’t think our boys realise how great it was playing with Gailimh [Mick Galwey] and Claw [Peter Clohessy] and Axel and all the characters, and then us taking it on, we had some unbelievable, unbelievable days in that jersey.

“These aren’t just words. You think of all the games in Thomond Park. So many of them, and the support we had. I think that’s what separates Munster from anywhere else in the world; the bond between the supporters and the team. And it was that team which created that bond.

“Look at all the away games. Fifteen years ago the fans travelled on a Thursday, had an almighty piss-up on Thursday and Friday night, and then on Saturday roared Munster on. But then isn’t that what life is about?” he says, chuckling.

It’s almost hard to credit that O’Gara is already in his fourth season as a coach with Racing. It’s been a rollercoaster too, eventually reaching the European Champions Cup final last season before winning the cherished Bouclier de Brennus last season with their 14-man win over Toulon by 29-21 in the Camp Nou; Racing’s first title since 1990.

Celebrated club though they are, that triumph in front of 99,124 spectators (a record for a domestic club match) was only their sixth French Championship success. This was also despite the sending-off of Maxime Machenaud for a dangerous tackle on Matt Giteau in the 18th minute.

“Honestly, after 20 minutes, when Max got the red card, I put down the book. I thought the game was over. It summed up rugby really for you. When you’re on the ropes you’ve just got to hang in there, and that was probably the most pleasing thing in terms of being able to get over the line, because it’s tiny differences that get you over the line.

“Are we at where I would like us to be in terms of cultures and values at the club? No, and nowhere near it, and that’s the biggest challenge for me, in terms of driving the environment. You have to have that right to be consistently good and that’s why we’re having yo-yo performances.”

Traditionally, as a club, Racing are synonymous with flair and an irreverent sense of fun, ever since a group of players called le show bizz in the 1980s occasionally wore long white pants, berets and pink bow ties. In the 1990 final they wore the latter and drank champagne at half-time in their win over Agen. Yet wearing club blazers and drinking a glass of champagne before their recent New Year’s Day meeting away to Toulon also drew negative press.

Daily demonstration

“It’s amazing, there is absolutely no daily demonstration of that history,” says O’Gara. “For the final [in Barcelona] they wore the blazers onto the pitch. I think that was a smart idea because the previous team wore dicky bows and drank champagne, but that was a different era, an amateur game. For the [pre-match] presentation with the French president I thought it was a classy gesture because Racing like to see themselves as a classy club.”

For the Top 14 fixtures over the New Year, the tournament organisers borrowed Racing’s idea by asking all sides to wear club blazers onto the pitch, so Racing added to this with a pre-match glass of bubbly.

“Because Toulon do their pilou pilou [a pre-match chant], it’s a little bit like taking on the haka. Why should they have that advantage? It wasn’t really a show bizz thing or anything like that. It was more a little bit of mind games.”

That Racing have revived any of their former glories is down primarily to one man, Jacky Lorenzetti, who took over the club in 2006 when they were in the ProD2, where they'd been for a decade. Despite their fine form in the run-down Stade Yves du Manoir, Lorenzetti will bring the club to their new home, Arena 92, in the western Paris suburb of La Défense for the start of next season.

“It will be a 40,000 indoor concert venue and 30,000 indoor rugby venue,” says O’Gara. “There will only be 30 games a year and 40 concerts a year, and I think that will take the club to a whole new level. Colombes is an old, soulless ground.”

The way O’Gara describes it – “I live in the suburbs” – he could almost be still living in Cork, or Milton Keynes, instead of Paris. First and foremost, it’s a job. “It’s great for the kids to be learning a new language, but it’s very much the same as being a player. I’m driven to win. It’s weird. That’s what makes me tick, because I was lucky in the team-mates I had. They shared a similar drive; Paulie [Paul O’Connell] or Wally [David Wallace] or people like that.”

“I suppose I’m lucky in that I have certain values and then I’m trying to get better at other things in terms of the technical side of the game. But what’s crucial is a good attitude. There’s no point going into a meeting and bollicking players out of it. You feel great because you’ve let steam off but have you improved your players? Mentally you haven’t had a positive impact.


“There’s a lot of teaching involved which is new. You’ve got to break things down and try and teach, and that isn’t easy in a different language, although rugby language is a little bit easier than normal French in getting the point across. But you can’t give them too much information either. It’s really interesting, just standing back and watching it.”

Although he has an input into Racing’s attack game, he is essentially their defence coach, while winning and losing are also altogether different as a coach. “You’re helpless as a coach. The greatest thing about being a player is that even if you have a poor game you get to let off steam and have a crack off it and live with it. As a coach you don’t get to express yourself. After games you have to clear your head. I find I need to go for a run, just to attack the week with a fresh head.”

His ultimate goal is to be a head coach. “That can happen in time. What I want to do is be part of a good coaching team, the same as being part of a good playing group. And when it does all come together, it can be quite a truly powerful feeling. ‘Yeah, that was me that helped put part of that together. That’s nice.’ You get the buzz by 15, as opposed to the person kicking the goals or whatever.”

The ambition would also be to coach in Ireland eventually, although he doesn’t feel there is the same time to develop as a head coach at home. “The players are so knowledgeable and motivated, you’d want to be better than them so you can lead the ship better than anyone else. Because I firmly believe the head man gives so much direction to whatever organisation he’s in. He sets the tone, how he gets up every day. The team are important, the public are important, the media are important; there’s so many stools to coaching. From Monday on you’ve got to be in early, and every day after that, and it’s a big role to get right.”

Yet it’s clearly an ambition that excites him.

“Exactly. An unbelievably exciting challenge. I wouldn’t be fazed by it, but to not be fazed by it you’d want to make sure that you have your homework done, and at the minute my homework is an ongoing process.”

He’ll be back. When he’s good and ready.