There is no disguising the links that have bonded Munster and Racing 92 since Ronan O’Gara began his coaching journey in Paris in 2013. Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo, and Mike Prendergast have since found their way to the Top 14 outfit while the relationship between the European rivals has also been strengthened on a deeper emotional level by the tragic and sudden death of Anthony Foley in the city in the hours before a Champions Cup pool clash in October 2016.
Yet aside from the obvious connections thrown up this weekend as the Irish province returns to the French capital to face its exiled sons at La Défense Arena, there will also be a reunion for Munster centre Chris Farrell and his former Grenoble coach Prendergast.
It was head coach Bernard Jackman and his Limerick-born assistant who took a punt on Farrell, then 21 and with only three injury-hit years of frustration at his native Ulster in his locker, and gave him the opportunity at the Top 14 club in the French Alps.
Farrell, now 26 and an Ireland international, took it with both hands and has not forgotten those who gave him the chance to prove he had what it took in the professional ranks.
“Whether I had much of a career to save at the time, I don’t know,” Farrell reflected this week.
“They had a massive effect on my career. Just me going to France in the first place, that was the opportunity that ‘Berch’ (Jackman) gave me. It was massive for me. There is no doubt that I owe them an awful lot of gratitude for the opportunity that they gave me. And they backed me when I was there as well, even though there were times where I might have had a bad game, and they backed me. They had an awful lot of confidence in me by the end of the three years so yeah, I owe an awful lot to the two of them.”
Farrell can see the impact Prendergast has made on Racing since he joined them as backs and attacks coach from Parisian rivals Stade Francais last summer and well remembers the influence he had on his Grenoble backline.
“I suppose from my experience what he brought to us in Grenoble was a sense of structure. He had a real focus on first-phase attack for us. He was persistent about trying to score off first-phase and he was really good for us in that area.
“He’s a quality coach and he brings a human aspect to it. He will sit down and talk to players individually, and about what they can do better, what they can improve on. He has had a good impact there, as of yet. He is just a great coach.”
Munster have added some coaching talent of their own over the summer of course, with Stephen Larkham’s arrival as senior coach impacting most on Farrell as the Australian playing legend has set about revamping his side’s attacking gameplan. For Farrell, that is a welcome development, given his criticism of his backline’s inability to make a sufficient impression on defences last season. Munster may have hit a roadblock in terms of tries scored, managing just seven in as many games in a sequence that has returned just two wins.
“I think we have improved massively this season. And I know you could say last weekend (the defeat at Ulster) wasn’t great, and the weekend before (losing at home to Leinster) wasn’t necessarily our greatest show as well. But I think as a group collectively we are improving and we are getting closer to scoring good tries. We’re not just relying on kicking and all those things and I do think we are improving massively.”
Asked to pinpoint what exactly had improved, Farrell replied: “Clarity and our 10s … Whenever I came back in from World Cup duty, JJ (Hanrahan) and these lads that have stepped in have taken real control of things.
“What’s improved? I think the variation of what we have, the forwards have taken more control of how we play in attack, their skill set has improved massively since last year.
“That’s one of the main things since we came back at the start of the season that I have seen from last season.”
All that Farrell hopes for now is that Munster can start fielding a consistently strong line-up having struggled to cope with the loss of their 12 Ireland World Cup players to player welfare protocols over the festive period.
“That is going to be difficult with the Six Nations coming around and some players are going to be away... but whenever we get to the business end of the season, I think if we can get a little bit of consistency and get our best combinations out there week on week — because I don’t think we have had that this season yet — then I think we’ll start to see drastic improvements.”