RONAN O'GARA: Moving up and breaking new ground at Racing

 An artists's impression of Racing's Arena 92 stadium which will replace the Stade Yves-du-Manoir.

It’s been a feelgood week around the Racing training ground in Paris.

A win over Montpellier last weekend was followed by our president’s announcement that ground had been broken on the club’s new 40,000-capacity Arena 92. First games there at the back end of 2016.

Then the club revealed it had inked a deal to bring Mike Phillips on board. Win, win, win for the club ahead of a huge pair of Heineken Cup fixtures against a rejuvenated Harlequins. It’s critically important we don’t allow the sense of momentum to dissipate tomorrow.

I’d be very strong in terms of backing Phillips as a player you want in your dressing room. Hence when the club sought my recommendation on whether to go for the out of contract scrum half, I was comfortable putting my head on the block and strongly encouraging Racing to seal the deal. There’s been a bit of a spat here this week between Bayonne and ourselves over his signing, but all the coaching staff were interested in was strengthening our number nine position.

The feedback Racing was getting on Mike was everything I have seen myself as an opponent with Munster and Ireland and a colleague on the 2009 Lions tour. Players are hugely impressed with his work ethic. He’s had some colourful headlines away from the pitch, but my standard mathematical equation with such matters has stood me in good stead over time — 80% of such stories are untrue! Mike Phillips isn’t married, he doesn’t have children, so should he be at his Playstation or watching a DVD every Saturday night? Even when he does go out, you can be sure he’ll be on a rowing machine Sunday morning.

You just don’t want to be playing against him. And I hated playing against him. But when you got to play with him, he was fantastic. He talks the talk, but walks the walk. He’s aggressive, he’s cranky, he’s exactly what you want in a colleague.

It’s the same with the Jonny Sexton thing in terms of relationships. Unless you spend time with a person, you won’t realise what he is really like. Before the Lions went to South Africa four years ago, we gathered in the Pennyhill Park Hotel outside London. Even I wouldn’t have the neck to ask for a single room on the first night, so when I turned the key in my room door, who was lying there, sprawled out across the room but Phillips. The two of us just broke down laughing. The ultimate ice breaker.

Given how well I know him as a player and person, I was comfortable making the call amongst the coaches at Racing on going for him. Phillips could be a key signing, there’s a beautiful contrast with our front line No 9 Maxime Machenaud; there are so many games over here where they will dovetail nicely over the 80 minutes. Nine is the most important position in French rugby, and we are now in a serious position of strength at Racing.

My own coaching education has also moved on a notch, with the role now extended to that of Defence Coach. It’s daunting when you consider making presentations in a different language — but it’s hugely challenging and exciting. Defence is the more straight-forward area of rugby to coach, with attack a very complex area. Heretofore in Racing, we wouldn’t have had a defensive system per se; in Munster and Ireland we always played to a system defensively, and I’ll be trying to introduce that as best I can here at the club.

So, whereas up to now I was a very interested observer — sitting at the back of the class — at squad presentations, now I’ll have to do my stuff at the top end of the room. But the scope to learn was something that appealed to me from day one — I knew there were only two coaches, so there was room for me to grow quite quickly as a coach by being on, or close to, the front line. With 40 players, there is some amount of work to get through.

Mike Phillips is registered for tomorrow’s game and joins a squad still in the process of gelling but coming off the back of our best performance of the season in beating Montpellier 18-14 — at least in terms of consistency. Getting our strongest 15 on the pitch remains the biggest challenge and it won’t happen this weekend either. However, Brian Mujati is back, Jamie Roberts has been in full training for two weeks, and Jonny Sexton is almost ready. The hip flexor is still a nagging concern for him. It’s hard to gauge how deep the penalty miss against the All Blacks has impacted on him, but my guess is not that much because he’s out of Ireland. The New Zealand game was news in Paris the following morning, but by Monday afternoon, everyone had moved on. It was no longer a story.

I’m hoping to be alongside 20-odd thousand early arrivers at Thomond Park on Sunday for Munster’s Sunday joust with Perpignan. Given how much the Top 14 side are struggling with injuries and suspensions, it would be easy for some in the stands to ignore warning signs. There are two reasons Munster’s players won’t do that — Perpignan top the pool, and Edinburgh isn’t so long ago to ignore the perils of not being at it. Perpignan may not be the most settled camp at the moment, but rugby professionals across Europe appreciate the special circumstances that pertain at Thomond Park for the Heineken Cup. If there’s a competitor in you, it should come out on Sunday.

Lifeimi Mafi will miss out with suspension. As a Munster man, I was sorry to see him leave for France. He’s a serious player and was hugely appreciated by the Munster squad.

While Leinster have the capacity to win at Franklins Gardens, it’s a tall order, though nowhere near that of Connacht’s daunting trip to Toulouse. France’s rugby royalty haven’t hit their full stride as yet, and they’re struggling for momentum, if truth be told. Luke McAlister is a big loss as is the retired Yannick Jauzion. But they are steeped in European pedigree and the claws don’t come out until the knockout phase.

Racing’s pool is impossibly tight, making it imperative we beat Harlequins back-to-back over the next two weekends. Racing are taking tomorrow’s home fixture down to Nantes FC’s Stade de la Beaujoire, where we hope to get between 25,000 and 30,000 at the game. The club has never made it to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and that is a stated ambition of our president Jacky Lorenzetti. He’s been a busy man, with the first day of construction on our new Arena 92 stadium last Monday in the western suburbs of Paris. It will replace Stade Yves-du-Manoir in under three years, with a capacity of 32,000, a retractable roof and a movable stand. It’s an exciting vista but the priorities are a lot more immediate on the pitch.


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