It’s -2 in Christchurch, but I am leaving with warmth in my heart and fire in the belly

A contemplative Ronan O’Gara ahead of a Crusaders training session at Rugby Park last week. Picture: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

It’s impossible to get used to -2 degrees in July. Irrespective of how many years a Paddy spends in Christchurch, heading out with a couple of Crusader coaches to a Japanese restaurant dressed like a lagging jacket always seems odd.

I’m not a big one for farewells. When the business is done, you just get out of Dodge and harvest the memories and the experiences for another day. Another time. But the Christchurch experience has been life-affirming – and life-altering too is respect of professional sport and how I view it.

We have lived in a city traumatised by the mosque massacre last year, a tragedy that brought out the best in humanity in response to the unspeakable evil in society. 

People always say professional sportspeople live in a bubble, but that murderous afternoon scarred and marked everyone in the Crusader organisation. That they have lived through that and retain the capacity to be professionals down to their bootlaces is an inspiring thing. But it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

Jess and the kids depart with me on Wednesday, back to France, and onto the next adventure in La Rochelle. 

There may be only nine days between the Super Rugby final in the Southern Hemisphere and the start of pre-season on France’s Atlantic coast, but it’s best that I don’t linger over what I’m leaving behind and fret too much over what’s ahead. It’s like crossing the canyon. You don’t look down until you’re on the other side!

It has been a frenetic end to the season in New Zealand. Anyone who watched the 30-26 Super Rugby semi-final win at home to our rival Hurricanes will understand how wholly frustrating the experience was from the coaching box. 

We scored, they scored. It’s what happens when you don’t put a side of that quality away. TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett were on fire and their forwards were up for it. If they’d scored and won the semi off the last play of the game, it wouldn’t have been undeserved. Any sniff of an opportunity the ‘Canes had, they maximised it.

Those who decry the so-called ‘monopoly’ of the Crusaders in Super Rugby forget that for almost a decade from 2008, we were out of luck. 

To complete the so-called ‘threepeat’ tomorrow would be a stunning endorsement of everything the Crusaders organisation strives to be, and works to achieve. 

That it could be a satisfying farewell after two of those three seasons for me has little – in fact, nothing – to do with it. The Crusaders are set fair.

Our opponents in the final are the talk of rugby down here. The Jaguares have won ten of their last 11 games. We are basically playing Argentina, 30 of the 37-man national squad are from the club. 

They didn’t so much beat up as destroy the Brumbies last week, and they’ll freewheel into the final with the handbrake off and confidence high. To beat the Brumbies 39-7 is a massive statement for any team – especially in a semi-final.

In one key regard, the timing of my Crusaders experience has been hugely fortunate. I’ve written here before that culture is all fine and well, and sounds great. But it’s a word, and an empty one at that without action and consistency. It is impossible not to derive benefit from daily interaction with the likes of Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, Ryan Crotty – the list goes on.

It’s -2 in Christchurch, but I am leaving with warmth in my heart                    and fire in the belly

I’ve been so lucky the time I have been here to be around them. They are all moving on next season and leaving the Crusaders in a different place.

They are properly unfillable boots. I have not just learnt from great coaching brains, but it’s invigorating to reaffirm the love I have for rugby by working with people of similar values.

Those players make the enjoyment factor so much greater, make that sense of contentment a lot deeper.

A few days ago Steve Hansen named his All Black squad for the Rugby Championship and it contains six Crusaders backs. That’s a fair thrill for me. 

I look at the progress of Sevu Reece. He was going to Connacht at one stage, and now he’s probably going to the World Cup as an All Black. That is what the environment of the Crusaders has done for him. I don’t think you are comparing like with like if you had put him in a Connacht jersey this season – and that is said with no disrespect to Connacht.

It’s the people who create the environment, good or bad. It’s very hard to explain to the reader, but you get confidence, belief and most importantly, security, from the people in the Crusaders environment – not from the environment itself.

From a rugby point of view, leaving that is very tough, but the values you take away are one you will try to create in La Rochelle. 

The mistake is trying to cut and paste it in - you will never do that – but I will try to bring so many of the good things I’ve learned in the past two years and look to instill those values in whatever follows.

People have asked is Crusaders the ultimate rugby environment for a player? It is, but I would have said the same of Munster around the period from 2000 onwards. For the majority of the years after, it was an exceptional environment, and I am not being biased or cute saying that.

I say that with the benefit of hindsight and being able now to compare it with other experiences. People of a certain generation may not appreciate what we had at Munster.

There was a special bond that I don’t think has been replicated since in Irish rugby.

One of the things that has intrigued me in a rugby-mad country like New Zealand is the crowds – or, on occasions, the lack of them. When we played big games in Thomond Park, you walked out there feeling ten foot tall. 

Last Saturday, at home in our semi-final, there was a healthy crowd, but the joint wasn’t full. And this was against the Hurricanes, which is Munster-Leinster in terms of rivalry. And so the Crusaders don’t necessarily have the crowds, the bite to inspire them – and yet they still deliver time and again. That’s even more impressive.

It leaves me wondering a bit about where Super Rugby is at. And where it is going. The distances between teams, conferences and continents are enormous, and SANZAR are struggling to make the financial model work. 

Maybe with the Rugby Championship coming up, and a World Cup around the corner, people are suffering from rugby fatigue, but none of that has stymied Scott Robertson and the Crusaders as they continue to set new standards. 

I couldn’t speak highly enough of the backs I have coached; they are a special bunch and they have marked me. 

Scott Robertson might appear to have a job on his hands when a lot of the senior players leave after this campaign, but the difference is his attitude.

My old mindset would have been about all the players we are going to miss next season, but his approach is next man up. It isn’t so much a glass-half-full attitude as a glass full all the time. Nobody in the Crusaders looks for an excuse.

It’s a philosophy every organisation would do well to replicate, whether in sport or business.

It’s -2 in Christchurch, but I am leaving with warmth in my heart                    and fire in the belly

The deal which has brought Stephen Larkham to Munster as attack coach is a fantastic piece of business for my old team, a massive signing.

Larkham is a world-class name with a world-class reputation. Importantly, I think it’s something the players needed too. It takes all the doubts and question marks away from trying to sell a vision. It’s Stephen Larkham talking now, so there’s that instant aura about him.

This is step-up time now for the Munster players. His arrival, plus that of Graham Rowntree for the forwards, removes any excuses for the playing group. 

Get a fast start to the season, and no-one will even mention the lack of a local voice in the coaching box. 

The flip side is that disgruntlement on the terraces will surface sooner if they don’t get results, so the start is important.

Munster have landed themselves a fair old Heineken Cup pool, but that might just be a good thing to cement the relationship between the crowd and the team.

Is there anything as raw in world rugby as the bite of a Munster underdog? Saracens beware.

Joey Carbery is already thriving in his new home, but the arrival of Larkham might add further potency to that. 

This is a big move too for the Wallaby, who might have a point or two to prove. He has shown admirable courage in moving himself and his family from Australia to Limerick. 

It’s not completely unheard of, but for an already established international coach to come to Ireland from the Southern Hemisphere countries is not common. 

Ordinarily, they come here to cut their teeth, but Larkham was a big player and has done stuff as a coach. His pedigree is proven.

My first day at work in La Rochelle is July 15. 

I will be part of a really small, tight, coaching group and that was one of the primary attractions. On the pitch it’s a first job in charge, the dominant voice on both sides of the ball. That’s exciting. 

La Rochelle just felt right, it’s a gut call and it means finalising pieces of the jigsaw, and seeing, without a safety net, what I am good at and what I need to improve. I am more interested in the latter.

It’s a natural move back outside the comfort zone. I know I will come away from a training session knowing I could have done it better, or delivered that message more succinctly, or delegated that part of the session in a more productive way.

But there’s no point beating yourself up over those things, just learn from them.

I know I am not the finished product and I accept that.

But I will get better.

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