BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Stepping out of the European rugby comfort zone

Blues head coach Tana Umaga with assistant coach Alistair Rogers

Like Ronan O’Gara, Welsh rugby coach Alistair Rogers understood the maxim about travel broadening the mind, says Brendan O’Brien

Over the last few years I have been growing my experience. I have had the fortune of working with some of the world’s best coaches, helping me gain a great wealth of knowledge, not only about the game but about how a top performing team operates and, in turn, the high standards to which I hold myself.”

Not the words of Ronan O’Gara, despite the week that is in it. They are, instead, the thoughts of Alistair Rogers whose journey to the summit of New Zealand rugby has been far more unlikely than that of the Munster legend.

And it is a story that highlights just how rare and significant the move from Paris to Christchurch really is for the Ireland and Lions alumnus.

Born and reared in the Welsh town of Port Talbot, there was little in an obscure playing career as a flanker with Aberavon, Neath and Ebbw Vale to suggest that Rogers was a man who would one day play a key role on an All Blacks coaching staff that would claim the last two World Cups.

Or go on to secure a role for himself as defence coach with the Blues.

The move to New Zealand was made for the first time in 1999 when he lined out for Wellington side Western Suburbs. His love for the country, and for the local woman who would become his wife, drew him back again even after a relocation to the UK, where he founded an IT business, and Ireland, where he briefly served as Ballina’s Director of Rugby.

Like O’Gara, Rogers understood the maxim about travel broadening the mind.

A spell coaching in Japan has padded out a CV built on his performance analysis work with the All Blacks and the Hurricanes before Tana Umaga – a man who has himself lived in Italy and France – asked him to play a role in re-inflating a Blues body stuck in slump mode.

“I knew straight away this was where I’d end up,” Rogers once said of his love affair with New Zealand. “As soon as I came here it felt right.”

There must be plenty of others with a rugby pedigree who have pitched up on those same shores, felt the same connection and harboured the same ambitions, but the success rate is tiny.

Rogers was the only non-native coach working across the five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises last season and he is probably in country long enough to rank as a local by now anyway.

There is an understandable determination to shop local when it comes to rugby’s professional community down there and the Crusaders had to clear O’Gara’s appointment with NZ Rugby before head coach Scott Robertson could welcome the man he had sussed out for the role over dinner in a Dublin restaurant before the Ireland-South Africa game earlier this month.

Even O’Gara’s new boss has referenced the inward-looking local mindset.

“Firstly I looked locally but the experience I wanted wasn’t in New Zealand, so I broadened my thinking,” Robertson was quoted on stuff.co.nz. “We were looking for someone who has experienced rugby at the highest level and performed in pressure situations. Rog has done that as a player for different teams and also as a coach.”

The trade route between Europe and New Zealand has long since been open for business, but it has always been a one-way street.

At least 17 of the 20 or so front-line franchise coaches in 2017 could point to a spell doing their ‘OE’, overseas experience.

Toes were dipped in waters across Europe, Japan and even South America. Some of them even have Irish links.

Jason Holland, now an assistant with the Hurricanes, is a Munster legend. John Plumtree, a one-time forwards coach under Joe Schmidt with Ireland, serves on the same staff. Dave Ellis left Connacht to hook up with the Blues and the Chiefs’ Andrew Strawbridge once spent some time with Old Crescent in Limerick. The playing pool is far less worldly.

There are roughly 200 players spread across the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes rosters, of which only 13 could be listed as ‘foreign’. Made up of two Europeans (including Ireland’s Oliver Jager), a Canadian, a South African, an Aussie and five Pacific Islanders, the majority of those have been reared and/or schooled in New Zealand.

And this is seven years on from the decision by NZ Rugby to relax rules on foreign players and allow each of the franchises to field two from abroad. Some restrictions did remain. No more than one could be employed in a specialist position, such as tighthead prop or ‘first five-eight’ although Pacific Islanders were ruled to be exempt from the strictures.

So, this is the new world into which O’Gara has committed. One that has rarely felt the need to add new DNA to their own coaching gene pool. It is the next, intriguing step in his own personal crusade to hit the same heights as a coach which he did for so long as a player, but O’Gara departs for New Zealand in January as a pioneer too.

It won’t be just his Irish brethren paying close attention.

Brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien


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