I got off a flight in Christchurch Sunday weary and with the seat of the pants stuck to my backside. By Monday morning though, the first shrill whistle of Crusaders’ pre-season had that whiff of fresh ambition about it, writes Ronan O'Gara.
For the likes of Ollie Jager, the young Irish lad who greeted me on my first morning here a year ago, desperate for one of those prized Super Rugby contracts. Ollie came down here from Dublin as a back row but five years and some serious extra kgs later he’s been turned into a tighthead. Last year his hopes and dreams were cut short by a serious shoulder injury, ending his season before it ever got started.
There’s another prospect with us in pre-season desperate to rebuild his rugby career. You might have heard of Sevu Reece. He’s 21. Connacht had agreed a deal with the exciting Fijian winger out of Waikato to come to Galway before details emerged in New Zealand of a domestic violence charge against him.
Stung by the Grobler episode at Munster, Connacht — or the IRFU — pulled the plug on the deal. Sevu had his day in court, and the judge granted him a discharge without conviction and fined him $750 (€450) after taking into account mitigating factors. He made a bad error, he was remorseful in his first appearance before the courts, he held his hands up. He’s trying to rebuild his career.
Some folk are already renaming him ‘Disgraced rugby star Sevu Reece’. He’s neither disgraced nor a rugby star, but he’s intent on working hard on the second bit. The Crusaders have taken him on a pre-season contract. It’s the first week of training but he looks a cracking prospect. He’s got some serious gas and he’s a ball of muscle. A very interesting proposition to keep an eye on.
Being away from rugby since August has totally amped up my appetite for a second campaign of Super Rugby. Jess and the lads will be here for Christmas and it will be an intense, truncated season in New Zealand due to the World Cup. The 2019 Super rugby final will be the first week of July, around the time the French Top 14 season concludes. And yet the northern hemisphere leagues are already a third of the way through.
Anyone who has spent time with our head coach Scott Robertson appreciates how infectious his enthusiasm really is. Players will follow him. It might be a shift of emphasis by the NZRU to appoint him the next All Black coach, but if New Zealand is looking for a new man after the World Cup, it might be time for new blood anyway. There is a sense that the 2019 World Cup is the end of a cycle in New Zealand rugby with quite a few All Blacks planning to travel and play rugby in the northern hemisphere or Japan.
How the All Blacks players are managed between now and March will go a long way to informing their prospects in Japan next autumn. November was a sobering month for New Zealand rugby. England should have beaten them and Ireland did, more convincingly than the scoreline indicated. There’s a realisation that next October is a long way away and there’s little point in getting the Kieran Reads, Sam Whitelocks, and Beauden Barretts back on the bike too early.
Even in the short few days since my return, there’s been more talk about Ireland than about New Zealand. Rugby people were engrossed by that night at the Aviva, and there have been no complaints. The better team won. That Ireland has now backed up Chicago has got rid of the tag of ‘underdog’. Now it’s very different.
I had an interesting debate after training this week on a point I mentioned here a week ago: that of the changed psychology for Irish players going forward. A November clean sweep, a World Rugby awards clean sweep — Ireland is now on a pedestal we’ve never seen before. Can the players accept that and kick on? Or is this as good as it gets? Can Leinster and Ireland handle being favourites every time they go out? The way the reigning Heineken Cup champions are putting eight tries and 50 points on teams these days would suggest they’re on a different plane to everyone else. How short are people’s memories? Toulouse are a developing side, maybe at 50% of their potential, and for the first quarter of Leinster’s last game in Europe, they couldn’t live with the French side. It’s going to get more and more difficult in that respect for Leinster and Ireland. To every opponent, they’re a scalp now. The team to take down a peg. That will be very interesting in 2019.
Remember, the All Blacks have been living with that for years.
The good people of Cork were privy to another intriguing development last Friday night: a Munster backline approaching full strength again. To the rest of Europe, I’d say: Watch Out. Musgrave Park saw for the first time what a proper player Chris Farrell is. He had a monster game against Edinburgh. Incredibly impressive. Add to that the progress from JJ Hanrahan, Mike Haley, Andrew Conway,and the seamless return of Conor Murray, who hit the ground running. At full strength, and with a decent knockout draw, there are exciting European possibilities for Johann van Graan and his players. Andrew Conway was once a schools wonder kid in Leinster but maturity and experience arrive when they arrive. That transfer from thought to action is something he has improved so much on in the past 18 months. He now seems very good at processing his thoughts and delivering them in real gametime.
I watched the French Top 14 highlights from last weekend. Jet lag will do that. I wouldn’t be sure Castres losing to Agen was the result Munster needed before the sides meet at Thomond Park on Sunday. They are the Bouclier holders and will be stung by that. Castres have a backbone. If there was a Top 14 for that sort of thing, they’d be in the top three every season. Christophe Urios, the head coach, is going to Bordeaux at the end of the season and after winning a Top 14 there’s a fear now that this may turn into a bit of a drifting season for Castres. Whatever happens on Sunday, it will do little to advise us of how the return fixture will shake out in a week’s time at the Stade Pierre Antoine. Munster fans might be thinking bonus point win on Sunday. If they are, I would advise they do so with a little bit of caution.
When the psychology of these back-to-back fixtures is referred to, it is in the context of Munster putting a 50-pointer on Castres this weekend and essentially demoralising them ahead of the return. There may be a two-try margin in it this weekend but the game between the sides next week will be nip and tuck. Castres may deem something like 33-20 acceptable at Thomond. That gives them a shot at turning it around the following weekend.
For every ounce of momentum the Irish players will bring back into their provincial set up this week, the French clubs are fortunate there is such a disconnect with their national team. The hand-in-glove relationship between province and country in Ireland does not exist between club and country in France. They sail like two separate vessels. So none of Les Bleus will bring the contamination of the loss to Fiji back with them to their clubs.
Club coaches across the power nations like Ireland earn their stripes this month and next. They have to excite and stimulate the international players even though it’s a level lower. If the likes of Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster, van Graan etc can achieve that, then they can have a really interesting season. But if the top international feels that the required standards aren’t being met at club level, it’s easy to fall off the wagon.