Ronan O'Gara expects Irish sides to rebound in Europe

Racing 92’s defence and kicking coach says team is relishing coming clash with Leicester

 

For the first time in nine seasons, Irish rugby is on the outside looking in at the European Champions Cup on semi-final weekend. Even in that 2006-07 campaign, Munster and Leinster lost away to the Scarlets and Wasps in the quarter-finals, and the following season Munster would regain the trophy they had won for the first time in 2006. Halcyon days indeed.

Following Munster’s two trophies in three years, Leinster lifted the Cup three times in the ensuing four seasons, and even in the last three years Munster, twice, and Leinster had reached the last four before being drawn away to heavyweight French opposition in the shape of Clermont and then Toulon twice.

This season, not only has no Irish team reached the last four, but of course, none reached the knock-out stages for the first time since 1997-98.

Ronan O’Gara is better placed than most to consider the apparent difficulties facing the Irish sides in his role as defence and kicking coach at Racing 92, who play Leicester in Nottingham in Sunday’s second Champions Cup semi-final. He believes the Irish will be back.

“I do think they can, genuinely. I think Leinster would have been very disappointed with their campaign. I think they’re capable of beating Bath and beating Wasps. Ulster obviously had Saracens, which was difficult, but if you recall Munster really took Leicester to the wire at Welford Road and ended up losing by ten points. I think they need to get back to winning games at Thomond Park and that’s their biggest challenge.

“But there’s something not adding up when you consider the amount of players who play for Ireland and play very well for Ireland, and the amount of those players in the Leinster squad. I would say that is something Leinster will address over the summer and I’m sure they’ll be contenders again, never mind getting out of their group.”

Winnable games

On the tenth anniversary of Munster beating Leinster in the first of their all-Irish semi-finals at Lansdowne Road, it’s also remarkable to think that Munster might not even be competing in the premier European competition next season unless they win their remaining two Guinness Pro12 games.

“It would be very, very surprising and very disappointing, but I remain optimistic. I think there’s two very winnable games. It’s important the players and the staff are not overcome by fear, and that their game will be so frozen that they don’t express themselves, because there’s a massive amount at stake. It’s now the time to produce,” O’Gara says.

“The talking is finished. I know there’s umpteen chances but I’d like to think that I still know a lot of the guys in that dressing-room and they still are capable of producing something when it really is put to them.”

It’s also remarkable to think that whereas Racing are playing in their first European Cup semi-final, O’Gara himself has played in a record ten semi-finals, and he believes he can bring that experience to bear.

“Yea, most definitely. I think the Toulon game was a little bit special for us because we play in the same league, although it did feel like a real European game because we were playing the three-time champions, even though that might sound like a bit of a contradiction. But this is an English team in England in a football stadium with a lot of history.

“I think what will surely motivate us is that we have a lot of big-game players, who have played on the biggest stage at test level, never mind club level. To be honest it’s been very easy really; it’s been an exciting week and we’re looking forward to this coming Sunday, because although the Top 14 is a hard championship, to get out of that now and into the sunshine in England will be really exciting for us.”

Massive momentum

Racing have not reached the Holy Grail of the Bouclier de Brennus since the last of their five championships in 1990 and have not made the final since. But with Racing the last French team standing and five more regular season matches remaining plus, potentially, up to three more knock-out games culminating in the final on June 24th, the European Champions Cup now, at any rate, looms larger on the Parisians’ horizon.

“I think where we are, and the fact that we have beaten Toulon, has given us massive momentum and confidence. We just have to be careful, the speed with which the English and Irish teams play the game would be faster than the game that’s played over here,” O’Gara says.

“Leicester in the last four months, particularly under Aaron Mauger, have developed their game incredibly, and it’s very exciting how they play. From our point of view it’s great to have the distraction of Europe – well, not a distraction, but it’s something we really want to win and at the minute it’s at the top of our priorities because we are 160 minutes away from winning it, or 80 minutes away from a final. So it has to take precedence at the minute.

“But that’s the great thing about this club, I think. We’re competing on both fronts, and it’s an advantage because Toulon and Clermont are out of Europe so it’s something we have to go after.”

Backed by Jacky Lorenzetti’s millions, and based in a new state-of-the-art training complex with a new stadium to come, Racing have been a work in progress, steadily building their squad with marquee signings and a more unified, professional club culture.

Central to this season’s progress has been the arrival of Dan Carter from his World Cup-winning exploits in the autumn.

“Dan has contributed a lot but there were a lot of building blocks in place,” said O’Gara. “There is Messi and Ronaldo in the soccer world, and Carter in the rugby world. When you have a fella that good, it is very hard to compare him with anybody because of his ability with or without the ball. So he gives us presence, he gives us leadership and he gives us control, but you wouldn’t like to think it’s all based on one pair of shoulders. I think he obviously has extraordinary quality, but with the work we’re trying to do it’s important that other players can lead as well.”

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