RONAN O'GARA: Champions act like champions long before they are champions

SO where was I before you left me for the GAA Championship?, asks Ronan O'Gara.

Last Tuesday morning is where I was. In Plessey-Robinson. At Racing Metro’s training facility. With a video, a projector and a felt pen. Stressing that champions act like champions long before they become champions.

Brive, an average Top 14 side, put 32 points on us last Saturday. We won handy, but conceded four tries. That’s a frustrating set of numbers for a defensive coach to digest against an average side.

I put up that point about champions in the match debrief with the players. There’s a lot of bullshit sports psychology out there, but that one has always resonated with me.

Conceding four tries at home to Brive is not the performance of champions, it’s not the attitude of champions, nor the mindset of champions. I am not prepared to sit on another roller-coaster campaign with Racing and go from the very good to the damn ugly. Toulon do not do that, even if every other team in France does.

But Toulon are our benchmark.

There are signs I look for as a coach that I wouldn’t have noticed as a player. The relationship is a busy two-way street. The players are looking for champion guidance from you, you’re looking for the stuff that sets them apart as individuals and as a group. It can be a powerful synergy. For champions, it has to be.

I took an interest in Kerry’s progress under Eamonn Fitzmaurice throughout the summer. He ticks the key boxes. Trying to read between the lines from this distance is a dangerous thing, and I don’t want to be a fraud, but the small touches make a big difference. There are two sides to professional sport (and let’s face it, GAA preparation at inter-county level is professional) — the technical side and the personal side. You can be as tight as you want with players as individuals, and that carries you so far, but you have to prove your technical ability as well.

That’s what I’m still seeking, because being a good player doesn’t transfer to being a good coach. It’s only when you stand in front of a room full of players that that penny drops.

To facilitate a happy camp, you have to run the ship well. But your senior pros will demand detail too. If you’ve senior players who are hugely driven, then the younger fellas will row in and start leading it themselves.

Getting players into sing-songs on the team bus? That’s the easy bit. Pen, paper and projector. Video, notes and feedback. Discuss in French, think in English. Mercifully, the numbers are the same. Getting the point across convincingly in an uncluttered way. That’s the challenge.

There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t learn something. As a player, people would ask ‘what does O’Gara need a coach for?’ In fact, you need your coach for everything, you look to him every day for direction. He’s the boss.

Exampla gratis: The Munster game plan last Saturday against Leinster compared to the wide-wide game of Rob Penney. The coach is getting the same group of players to do something that’s completely different. Some are suited, others aren’t. But it rises or falls on how and what the coach is telling these players. You could see the emphasis has now changed under Anthony Foley, to Conor Murray being the chief decision-maker, and orchestrator of the game plan. The forwards played off him. In the previous 15 years, it was the 10 calling the shots.

A game plan comes from the coach, and how he gets that message across. Players are so knowledgeable nowadays, they’ll detect any hint of bullshit out of you.

Outside the bubble, there’s a perception of Foley (same as there was with me) being difficult and grumpy. Axel is hugely knowledgeable and knows rugby inside out. But because he used to look a little dishevelled as a player in the mornings, it’s hard for him to shake that image. He probably wasn’t the type who jumped straight into the shower when he got up; it was on with the tracksuits and off to work, and after his weights session, he’d have the wash. He wasn’t a top-of-the-morning type of lad, but the players who know him recognise his game intelligence, that he knows exactly what he wants and how he wants to play the game. He has a serious sense of humour too which people don’t get — no smiles but happy on the inside, says his Twitter account. That sums him up. He’ll go home, happy out with the remote control in his hand watching Man United. Or maybe a rerun of Munster v Leinster in the Aviva at the beginning of October.

Rugby has got very complicated but when push comes to shove, it doesn’t get more fundamental than the ruck. Munster destroyed Leinster in the contact areas of the ruck last Saturday, allowing them to play offloads and dictate the tempo. The result was they blew Leinster away up front.

Foley’s rugby is about the right play at the right time. Play the moment. Munster are best suited by playing direct and getting over the gain line. Sniping around the fringes. Sometimes you have to go wider than just around the fringes, but there was some seriously smart pre-game analysis out of Munster last weekend.

I’ve talked to Johnny Sexton a lot in terms of what Leinster are doing since Joe Schmidt left. Matt O’Connor likes to defend with more width than Leinster did previously, hence getting into the defensive shape they have to get wider, which means they are weaker around the fringes. Munster went after that area. Once you get over the gainline, it’s easy to make yards and harder for Leinster to close in.

Already the new emphasis from the coach is suiting Conor Murray’s game. He’s a serious athlete and there’s a lot of improvement still to come. The more rugby he watches, the more he understands the right play at the right time — be it releasing the ball or using his forwards.

The Parisien equivalent of Munster-Leinster will kick up a storm here tomorrow night when Racing go across town to face Stade Francais at their place. We’re eight games into our season, but now it gets interesting. On Saturday week, we entertain Northampton Saints in the new European Cup. Can we cope with the speed of the English teams?

Johnny Sexton may have to go right back into the mix for that one, cold from inaction, but sometimes you just have to do that. We’ve missed him, but he’ll be like a new signing, he’s in a good head space.

We talked over a series of weeks and months about the move back to Ireland, but it’s difficult for me because I am an employee of Racing Metro, and we have a better chance of winning things if Johnny is here.

When I knew he had decided to go back to Leinster, I went after Matt Giteau from Toulon, but failed to sign him. I had him in Paris for meetings, and in extensive talks; we viewed him as an ideal replacement for Sexton. (He was voted Top 14 player of the year on Monday night). But we couldn’t convince him, because he’s winning in Toulon and if you’re a serious sport sperson, it’s too big a risk.

His new contract with Toulon must be worth close to seven figures a year; he wasn’t offered the seven figures by us, but €1 million a year players will be in France in the next 12 months. Guaranteed. The game is getting bigger in a country of 60-odd million. There are some wealthy people here, and while there are regulations on salary and budgets, the clubs are not owned by the federation. They’re not answerable to many people.

The French and the English clubs wanted more control of the European game, and now they have it. They’re also realising that this Heineken Cup lark involves quite a bit of work. People are already frustrated with the fact that the back-to-back fixtures for Rounds Three and Four are still not finalised for the pre-Christmas schedule. For such an elite competition, that’s disappointing. Neither do the winners of the Challenge Cup get into the European Cup next year, which is a clear disincentive. I’m sure it’ll be alright on the night. But you know what we say about champions...


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