RONAN O'GARA: Out of Europe before Christmas but sadness is relative

It’s very difficult to have any in-depth discussion on rugby when the thought of what’s important in life always overrides it, writes Ronan O’Gara

RACING 92 has only won one game since November 12th, we are out of Europe and one of our best players appears to have booked himself a one-way ticket back to South Africa.

We discovered that on Twitter warming up in Glasgow last Friday night. It’s been an interesting seven days.

Christmas is cancelled if we lose at home to Castres tonight in the Top 14.

This game and the New Year’s Day visit to Toulon are critical to Racing’s season now, a lot more important than the double-header against Munster in January.

In reality, Racing had only a five-day pre-season with the final of the Top 14 keeping us busy til the end of June and we are paying the price for that.

January will be used to build ourselves a proper foundation for the next five months of domestic rugby.

Bottom line, Racing are out of the Champions Cup.

This is professional sport and if you can’t have a crack off Europe, you must give yourself the best preparation for the bid to retain the Top 14.

We have the opportunity now to put some hard work in place, reserves we need to have in the bank.

The week before Munster come to Paris on January 7, we are in Toulon.

You figure out where Racing’s priorities lie. Have we gone backwards this season?

The evidence to hand would say so.

In Glasgow last Friday we met a side in cracking form and if you don’t respect the ball, you don’t win games.

Gregor Townsend’s players were sharper, they were better than us and the synthetic surface didn’t help, but it’s not the reason we are out of the Champions Cup.

However, because the Top 14 has become such a monster, it is used as a safety net, a fall-back to put the serious disappointment of last weekend behind us.

And I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

We’ve discussed here before how some provincial players in Ireland don’t bring their form into the national side.

Racing stand in that dock now in terms of Europe.

From where we were last May in Lyon we have fallen off the wagon which is not acceptable for one of the best resourced sides in the competition.

The appetite for success in the Top 14 is all-consuming and goes from the bottom of the club right up to the president’s office.

The craving can create volatility in the market place but a big spend doesn’t cure all ills.

Everyone in French rugby is consumed by the Bouclier but that must not camouflage the brutal truth that our game isn’t fast enough to compete at European level.

Has last season’s memorable Top 14 success sated some fellas’ desire?

We’re about to find out.

We have looked to adapt our game this season but the short-term pain we are experiencing is only worthwhile if it leads to medium term gain.

We have changed our attack philosophy but road- testing that at European Cup level is difficult to do against sides with established game-plans for a few years.

Dan Carter copped a fair bit of abuse from the tv pundits on BT Sport last Friday night, which makes for great television but it’s very blinkered analysis.

Dan’s cranky – and not with BT Sport, but with himself and his colleagues.

He’s an easy target from the gantry but if everyone around you is making errors you don’t have any pressure, and pressure is crucial for an out-half to have any impact on the game.

 

Champions Cup Pool 1 remains a tad skewed by the deferred Racing-Munster game, but the lads at home might have put clear daylight between the top two and Leicester in third if they’d won at Welford Road.

If Munster aren’t quite kicking themselves, they are disappointed to have let three points slip at Welford Road.

The game was there to be killed, to put their foot on Leicester’s throat, in the first half.

But once it got to 6-6, with a hometown crowd demanding pride restored from their Tigers, it had the potential to get away from Munster.

Tyler Bleyendaal’s misses from the tee were untimely but they’re probably the first miscues he’s had this season.

I’ve had plenty of Pascal Gauzere experiences and he is a very French referee if I could put it like that.

The Simon Zebo yellow card was not a good call and one the TMO should examine his part in too.

Whatever the individual pool permutations, Saracens look to be operating on a level above anyone else in Europe at present.

Bringing in 22st Nick Skelton into the second row is a serious bit of business.

Leinster and Clermont look good on their day but Sarries look imperious in Europe.

Clermont are always exceptional this time of year, especially at home.

But only they know how close it came to blowing up again in the face of an Ulster comeback on Sunday.

When Tommy Bowe brought it back to 28-19 in Clermont, the conversion from Paddy Jackson would have made it 28-21.

Psychologically it then becomes such a different game.

And there’s a lot of bad psychology hanging around the Stade Marcel Michelin.

Suddenly the feeling amongst the Ulster forwards, that hint of blood in the water when they get back to a one-score game makes such a difference and rattles Clermont.

Jackson missed and the sigh of relief from the home side is enormous.

Once the final whistle blows in tonight’s game at home to Castres, I’m trying to make the last flight from Beauvais home to wake up Christmas eve in Cork.

A day or two’s pause to reflect on life stuff, important stuff – not things like winning the Bouclier at the Camp Nou (though that will always be special).

More like family.

2016 will always be remembered for one reason, the only thing, the day I got the phone call about Axel.

Professionally, winning the Top 14 in Barcelona is a memory that lasts a lifetime, but how do you compare sport to what happened that day?

The dark symmetry of that October 16 – it was in Paris, it was Munster, it was Axel.

It’s very difficult to have any in-depth discussion on rugby when the thought of what’s important in life always overrides it. As it should.


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