Ronan O'Gara: Plenty of spice to keep us out of mischief during Six Nations

Connacht toyed with the idea of moving their Champions Cup last 16 game to a bigger ground. If they didn't contact the GAA, then I’m not sure they’ve looked at the bigger picture
Ronan O'Gara: Plenty of spice to keep us out of mischief during Six Nations

Connacht vs Leicester Tigers at the Sportsground. The province toyed with the idea of moving their Champions Cup last 16 game to a bigger ground. If they didn't contact the GAA, then I’m not sure they’ve looked at the bigger picture, says Ronan O'Gara. Picture: Billy Stickland / Inpho

Caught Covid last week, restricting me to barracks for the greater part of a week. Not all bad though. I got to finesse my homemade chicken curry. It’s all about flavours. Don’t mess around with piles of rice and chips extra for quantity. Spin down to my man in the Farmer’s Market in Mahon Point and get the green saffron spices. Quality. We have our own stash over here. You can take the boy out of Cork, but he’s going to take his curry flavours with him.

Cooking is superb for calming the mind, clearing the thought process.

I started musing on what April will look like when the Six Nations is done and the European Champions Cup returns. In all my years of rugby, I have never faced a two-legged knock-out tie. That’s something to be thinking of, but who do we play the week before the two legs against Bordeaux-Begles? Correct.

So we end up playing the same opposition three weeks in a row and that presents so many different challenges. Away, away and at home. For starters, it is not doing the players or the supporters any favours. You are boring the fans and aggravating the players. There is a strong case for a fixture move but the Top 14’s governing body, the LNR, has its own issues at the moment listening to their constituent clubs gripe and bitch about losing all their internationals for a batch of Top 14 games.

I remember a couple of years back reading with more than passing interest a piece in the Examiner how Cork GAA floated an idea of playing championship games without inter-county players, but it was shot down – even when the teams weren’t playing for full points. We face Montpellier this weekend in a very important Top 14 game, fifth v sixth and we’re down five internationals.

Unlike the Irish model, the clubs ‘own’ the players in the Top 14, not the Union. But none of Atonio, Aldritt, Dulin, Lavault or Danty are ours this weekend.

Anyway, back to the Bordeaux conundrum and the issues around two-legged fixtures. When you lose the mental energy in a game, you will need a pretty composed and mature group to be going, ‘No, we have to keep this going for next week’. Players who might have waved the white flag in the last quarter must now reset themselves to see out the game and secure the best possible result. There are upsides too to the first of the triple-headers - the Top 14 game will provide a very beneficial dry run for the European fixtures, presuming they are on in the same stadiums.

Either way, rugby ain’t soccer. You don’t play an away Cup tie by sitting in a deep block. You can deliver a defensive masterclass via ball retention. It’s a constantly evolving theme with the La Rochelle squad and we are improving game by game. Though we conceded two late tries in Glasgow last Saturday night, one of them was somewhat freakish. We had already qualified for the knockouts but there is a growing culture in the group of treating away games with the same mentality as those in the comforts of their own stadium. It’s taken a while.

Though the process of getting to the last 16 has been less than desirable, it has produced eight belting games when the competition resumes in late spring. The pitch in Bordeaux will be hard and fast and will demand a different, more demanding tempo. The two legs will further accentuate the unique idiosyncrasies of home advantage in rugby.

Ulster will look to their Ravenhill fortress to see them over the line in the second leg past the reigning champions Toulouse. The trouble is where will the tie sit at that point. The pause in the competition now has come at a perfect moment for Toulouse. By April, they will have all their French players back, fit and ready. That is a nightmare scenario for any opposition.

Watch out for Montpellier too against Harlequins. They copped plenty of flak for the side they sent to Dublin to face Leinster but put yourself in the shoes of Phillipe Saint-Andre. They had three weeks, back to back: Leinster away, Exeter at home, La Rochelle away. They might have brought their strongest team to Dublin and still left with nothing.

People can say all they want about the integrity of the competition, but I have seen coaches manage their squads in European competition in other sports and there’s never a word. Montpellier came home, got the bonus-point win over Exeter and secured a place in the last 16. Now they have momentum and are ready for our place on Saturday. Is Saint-Andre wrong? My view is if he'd tried to go all out three weeks in a row, Montpellier would have come unstuck.

It seems Connacht toyed with the idea but thought better of taking the home leg of their Round of 16 tie against Leinster to a bigger ground and wider audience beyond the Sportsground. While it’s laudable and done for the right reasons, it is the correct decision? If this isn’t strictly a ‘one off’, it is also a massive opportunity to grow the game in the province. If they haven’t been talking to the GAA about Pearse Stadium in Galway or MacHale Park in Castlebar, then I’m not sure they’ve looked properly at the bigger picture.

That’s only my view. It's hardly an inexperienced Leinster side that will travel to the Sportsground, so there’s no material advantage there. I’d love to get Andy Friend’s thoughts on this: is there a contradiction in that decision with the way Connacht are playing now under Andy? Would their skill levels be better suited on a superior quality surface? A fast pitch would suit them.

I was thinking of my old buddy Mossy Lawler after Connacht’s game in Paris against Stade last weekend and reckoning that he might have needed a stiff whiskey for himself in its wake. It must drive the Connacht management demented at times that they can do so many things so well and then lose the plot in the key moments.

Believe me, the last thing Connacht need or want is being patted on the head with some patronising waffle about ‘being on the up’ or ‘punching above their weight’. Let’s be fair, if that was Leinster or Munster, and they lost again last weekend - as they did in Leicester - they’d be absolutely slated for blowing up against 14 men after Stade hooker Tolu Latu was red-carded. Connacht led in the second half in Paris 24-15 and 31-20 but ended up losing 37-31. It’s all fine saying they were through already, but these are important hurdles they need to overcome.

If Connacht took that Leinster game to Pearse Stadium and secured a money-spinning first leg, it might be the difference between getting an extra quality signing or not. And they could do with that.

One added thing worthy of mention from Munster’s facile win over Wasps – the desperation amongst the Thomond Park support for something tangible to get behind. Those supporters so want to get in behind the team and a way of playing, with a bit of tempo. It will be really interesting to see how much the players take ownership of that team over the next five months.

It’s in their hands really. They were good for 35 minutes but if they had maintained that tempo for 80 mins, they could have put 60 points on Wasps.

What would be the point of that? Leinster obliterate teams, not to humiliate them, but to maintain their own ridiculously high standards. That’s what competition for places looks like - when you are getting minutes, you simply have to do well.

That raises standards, competition for minutes and every day, make training, shall we say, spicy.

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd