Prendergast plotting to foil old pal O’Gara’s high-fliers

Racing 92’s attack coach looking forward to clash with Top 14 leaders La Rochelle

 Mike Prendergast: “Luckily in this club the attitude is that the Champions Cup and the Top 14 are on par.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczp/Inpho

Mike Prendergast: “Luckily in this club the attitude is that the Champions Cup and the Top 14 are on par.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczp/Inpho

 

Irish rugby should never be secure enough to gloss over the meeting of Munster minds at La Defénse Arena this Saturday afternoon. Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle can solidify their lead in the Top 14 by stopping a Racing 92 attack that is drawn up by Mike Prendergast.

You would imagine a week of radio silence between the old teammates.

“Ah no, we’d be in contact all the time,” says Prendergast. “I’d speak to Rog two, three times a week. I was down with him over Christmas for a few days, which was great.

“He and Jono [Gibbes] are going very well, and speaking to players down there he is very well got. His coaching is rated among them.”

Prendergast’s Parisian existence is worth revisiting. The grim circumstances have hardly improved since our interview in late March but the arrival of a third daughter, Charlotte, into the family ranks gives the Limerick man a refreshing perspective.

“Three girls are now all of different ages – 15, five and five months.”

Young Munster ladies or Limerick camogie might profit further down the tracks.

Keith Earls is the same, he has three girls. It often happens!”

Life is more manageable in the silent French capital. Elite rugby has settled into a workable if fragile normality amidst this pandemic winter with Racing 92 employing two full-time doctors to ensure a smooth Covid testing system that is about to be adopted by every European squad.

“There is a bit more freedom now,” says Prendergast. “Like, we didn’t know what was ahead of us back in March but I do know it is quite bad in Ireland. My wife was home for a couple of weeks at Christmas. She said as much. We had that here in France a month or two ago but it seems to be going okay at the moment.

“Racing have been running everything quite smoothly. We had a little patch about two weeks before the Champions Cup final when a number of people got it but, otherwise, we have been good.

“The thing is in Paris, actually all of France, there is very little open. Restaurants are a big part of life here but they are all closed. There is no socialising.”

Same advice – same hammer and dance –- nine months later?

“It hasn’t changed a huge amount for us. People are working from home or going home straight afterwards. You see, we have a curfew of 8pm and in parts of France that are hardest hit the curfew is 6pm.

“It has just become the norm. Paris is a lot quieter without the tourists. It is actually nice to wander around. You would nearly get used to it.”

The new testing protocols, which reveal results at least 72 hours before kick -off, should allow an already messy Champions Cup to reach a conclusion.

“There have been a couple of games cancelled but overall, it has been effective. I know things are bad at the moment but the vaccine is out, and people are holding onto that, and it keeps you going.”

Deepest squads

Only the deepest squads have any chance of finishing this season with silverware. Leinster’s backline, for example, is running out of bodies but Racing managed to give players like 37-year-old Donnacha Ryan time off by spitting their playing group for recent games against Agen and Clermont.

“Donnacha was telling me this morning he is feeling ‘fresh,” Prendergast laughs. “But we haven’t stopped going since August. We played the Champions Cup final and were back on the horse the next weekend in the Top 14. Every weekend we have had a game but we realise how privileged we are to be able to do our jobs. The guys are very respectful of that.

“We managed to get two victories after spitting the squad which was great. It shows the depth that is there.

“The staff have not had a break but at least we can come into work. It is long, but we speak about how fortunate we are, even just to have each other’s company. The results also help.”

Despite losing three Champions Cup finals since 2016, including two of the last three, the desire inside Jacky Lorenzetti’s club to compete on both the domestic and European fronts remains stronger than ever.

“We came out of a very difficult pool last season with Saracens and obviously Munster in it and the Ospreys. And we got through Saracens again only to come up short in the final. That was tough. Especially for lads who have played in three finals and only have a couple of years left in them. The group won’t be together forever.

“Luckily in this club the attitude is that the Champions Cup and the Top 14 are on par. I have spoken to our president [Lorenzetti] about that and he has this mentality as well.

“I always give the example of how blown away he was by the drawn game in Thomond Park last year. 5.30pm kick off on a lovely evening and the atmosphere fed into a cracking game. He saw how much it meant to the people.”

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