These eight months in Christchurch have changed me as a person

Being back in Cork next week affords the pause and opportunity to pick the bones of a remarkable eight months here in Christchurch, writes Ronan O’Gara.

These eight months in Christchurch have changed me as a person

Eight months that have changed me as a person every bit as much as developing my coaching skillset.

It’s a big thing to say, but operating in the Crusader environment has entirely altered my thought process as an individual.

Tomorrow night, we go looking for back-to-back Super Rugby titles against the Lions in our own backyard. This is the South African side’s third final on the bounce.

As the defending champions playing in Christchurch, we are prohibitive favourites and the Irishness in me might turn that into something fraught and anxious. That is the way we are, a glass-half-empty race of worriers.

Midway through the season, the Crusaders were preparing to face the Hurricanes in the league phase of the Super Rugby season. We were ravaged by injuries, facing our biggest New Zealand rivals with a team of largely untried talents. Losing to them would have provided the ’Canes with a massive fillip for the last third of the campaign, irrespective of what we had on the field. Our head coach is Scott Robertson, one of the most remarkably upbeat men with whom I have had the pleasure of working. He blew me away that week when I ventured that if the Hurricanes were ever going to beat us, it was then.

‘Razor’ fixed me with a death stare.

I don’t see it like that. Anybody who has come into my team has performed and taken their chance. I can’t wait to see these young fellas tomorrow.

The following evening, an unfamiliar-looking Crusaders group sent the Hurricanes on the road.

Razor showers you in his positivity. I would always have been looking to see what could go wrong in a game; he looks to see what will go right. Scott’s glass is never less than half-full.

Mine’s now the same, largely because of him.

It’s been almost weird being a sidecar passenger on your own development, knowing it’s happening but being too focused to stop and admire it. I’ve never been involved in such an intensely focused campaign of rugby as this one.

Amid the incessant demands and the frenetic nature of week-on-week pro sport, everything seems to be crystal clear. It’s strange.

We were 29 points down at home to the Waratahs in one seminal moment and won the game. Ever since, it’s felt like ‘we can sort this’. Fast-forward to last weekend’s semi-final and it’s the Hurricanes again. This time it was 32-7 until we let in a stupid, soft five-pointer in the game’s last play. That apart, we were utterly clinical and ruthless. And that philosophy doesn’t fall from the heavens.

We practise clinical and ruthless. The coaching and teaching element of the job is fundamental but the icing on top is the development of the individual player, their self-development. The trick for the coaching staff is knowing when to be part of that and knowing when to get out of the way. Helping the players help each other too. That’s been the really fascinating part to observe.

Nobody here has reinvented the wheel, and I’m certainly not the smartest kid in the class all of a sudden. Each and every experience is a development opportunity. It just seems that coaching in New Zealand is a master’s course in itself.

In Paris, there was a language barrier. You had to translate everything which, in turn, makes everything that bit slower. Here the players’ game intelligence is off the charts, the uptake is so quick. It helps, naturally, that there are so many local players from Canterbury and New Zealand, which means very little turnover. And they are being led by a coterie of really impressive All Blacks, from Sam Whitelock to Kieran Read to Ryan Crotty, and many others beside. These guys take ownership of the team, and that’s no coincidence either.

This is leadership carefully planned.

The management team is always eyeing up leadership potential and developing same to ensure there’s a tier under the main layer of leaders. That potential is continually harnessed to develop that skillset. Every Tuesday, from 2pm-5pm, they get IDO time — individual development opportunities — under the tutelage of leadership specialists who are tasked with monitoring the development of the group and the traits required to be the next brigade of Crusader leaders.

IN the midst of all this, you are continually reinforcing the benefits of what knowledge does for a coaching ticket, for a playing group, for team ambition, and for making the difference in the championship moments and games.

It makes for an interesting (and at times sobering) retrospective on things, on moments, and on careers. I look back now at key games, key battles we hoped to win. It was all a bit random at times.

These guys expect to win, and not because they are New Zealanders.

I know rugby, but now I am more confident about delivering my message in every different facet of the game.

There’s nothing special, there’s no mystery to these Crusader winners, but living with them clarifies in its purest terms the fundamentals of that oft-misused and misunderstood value — culture — and how you back it up. How you put into practice what culture is, and what trying to get better every day looks like.

I know I could end up with egg on my face if we get smashed in the final tomorrow, but that doesn’t change the over-arching importance of what they practise here in Christchurch.

So the mindset this week has been about preparing for a celebration of a season’s toil tomorrow night in front of our own fans. They have their own twist on the old Roy Keane favourite about pressure and tyres. The Crusaders don’t see pressure as an obstacle — they look on it as a privilege.

To beat the Hurricanes 30-12 in last week’s semi-final was an impressive statement of where the Crusaders are. It was tight in the first 20 but it never felt like the result was in doubt which, I presume, is strange for a Super Rugby semi-final.

With TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Laumapa, Sevea, and Jordie Barrett, the ’Canes’ offensive threat was obvious, but we are hardly deficient in that department; Richie Mounga is developing rapidly as an All Black 10 in waiting, there’s All Blacks Crotty, Goodhue, Havili, and Bridge, and the Bordeaux-bound Seta Tamanvalu is on the right wing. Mounga has a proper structure around him but it’s a safety net for him rather than a first option.

He plays on instinct which is brilliant. He doesn’t need a whole series of structured plays to excite him. He has that availability but he plays off the cuff, which is thrilling to see.

He’s gone up against Beauden Barrett a few times now and got the better of him this season, even if one always look better as a 10 when your team is on the front foot, as the Crusaders have invariably been this campaign.

The All Blacks pick on All Black form, and Barrett has been very good for New Zealand, let’s not mistake that either. But Mounga’s form deserves game time, and it will be interesting, going forward, to see whether that’s coming on for Barrett or the ’Canes’ pivot shifting to 15 and Mounga starting as ten.

Once tomorrow’s done, I am long-hauling it home to Cork before returning to Paris at the end of the month, when the kids return to school. Pre-season back here is at the start of December. That I have been given the chance at all to progress in such an environment has been a life-changing experience and for it, I am so grateful to Scott. I see how they live and die for rugby here, and how in all the layers in Canterbury below the Crusaders, there are coaches who would give their right arm for this opportunity.

Everyone has their own vulnerabilities and insecurities and initially I wondered was I in over my head. But I always had the respect of Dan Carter in my back pocket, and when you have that head start, it’s a very good base to call on. Once I knew he was interested in what I thought about rugby, I felt pretty confident of making a productive contribution to this wonderful organisation.

The Lions blitzed the Waratahs in the other semi-final on a fast track in Johannesburg last weekend.

Ensuring they don’t play with the same pace (and obviously without altitude) in Christchurch tomorrow is our job, but Razor’s always accentuated the Crusaders’ own strategies first and foremost. Christchurch, Canterbury, and New Zealand await, and the Crusader players are humble enough to understand that. But in the first instance, they play for each other, they lead, and they support. They back each other and they say: We can sort this.

Invariably they do.

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