RONAN O'GARA: Putting shape on Paris plans

It’s the eve of an all-Irish Rabo Direct pro 12 final, again underlining just how strong the provincial game remains in this country.

There are probably only two moneyed clubs in France with a greater depth of options on their playing staff than three of the four Irish provinces.

I should be in a better position to refine that judgment in a few months. I expect to make my first trip to Paris in the next week to get a proper schedule and structure for my new position with Racing. The media is the media, and the frenzy over Jonny Sexton isn’t surprising. But it’s off the mark. I am not going to Paris to be Jonny Sexton’s coach. That’s the bit I could do in my sleep, but it’s all the other elements of the coaching position that are new and will be challenging for me out there.

Things like developing a squad culture at Racing, getting the team prepared as opposed to myself, and simple things like realising there will be two senior coaches there and I will be their junior.

It’s important that you respect what Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit are doing. The best management teams I’ve seen at close quarters are highly organised, highly prepared, and there’s a clear synergy between them. No matter how experienced a player is, he will look to the head man and the coaching staff for direction. When that’s right, the potential for any team can be huge.

It’s important that I watch first, observe and listen, because the biggest mistake is thinking you can go straight in and change something because you’ve had an impact as a player. Coaching is completely different.

The key things don’t change — hard work and attitude. Those values are essential because even though Racing have a lot of new signings coming in, there is also a massive number of players there that are established and I know next to nothing about them.

The other key element of Paris preparation for me is on the domestic side. There’s a house and car with the contract and though those items are incidental to the rugby, they are extremely important to me in terms of Jessica and the kids. Because if they’re not happy, I’m not happy and I’ll be coming home early.

To explain: when you’re focused on work as a rugby player you could be anywhere in the world and scarcely notice. I’ve been in beautiful parts of South Africa and Tonga and people are ‘that place was beautiful’ but it’s all the same to me. What’s important is getting my family relaxed and feeling comfortable in France. Enjoying it.

I know from quizzing Dougie (Howlett) and Rua Tipoki about the challenges of getting their partners involved when they arrived in Cork.

This whole Paris deal happened quickly. I essentially landed it on Jessica. Ideally you’d have time to discuss all this. But if it doesn’t work for us as a unit, I’ll come home. Fair enough, it’ll be seen as a failed venture, but so what? There’s nothing bigger than your family. I’m not going to have them crying every night, because they are very close to their cousins, so there will be homesick moments. But if it gets too overwhelming, then let’s go home. Nothing is more important than family.

Last Friday’s meeting with Jacky (Lorenzetti, the Racing president) was productive. They’ve established themselves in the Top 14 but now they want to win something. He said he wanted to tap into a winning mindset, but that’s as a player. I’m completely unproven as a coach. There’s 42 players in the squad with only two senior coaches, excluding me. That seems like an awful lot of work for two coaches, but that’s a good thing for me in terms of scope to muck in and help them. Everyone brings something to the table from somewhere else. I’ve picked the brains of people that arrived here with Munster. They brought innovative ideas, but they weren’t born with them — they picked them up as they went.

In fairness to Racing, there probably wasn’t a position available per se but they’ve seen what I can bring to the club and they’ve created a position for me. I’ll be able to roadtest ideas and strategies with the junior players in the club, but it looks like I won’t have that much spare time away from the first team.

Jonny Sexton knew the arrangements in advance. He was one of the only people who was forearmed. He was only laughing when he heard it. ‘The media are going to love this one’. He got that one right.

People need to understand how much time kickers spend with each other. We leave Carton House at 10am for the Aviva, and it’s either my car or his. We kick, ice bath and head for Juniors, a restaurant in Dublin. It’s basically hanging out. You’re not going to do that with someone you’re awkward with. Otherwise you’d be kicking alone, travelling in different cars, making excuses, ‘Eh, I’ve a meeting there now, Jonny, catch you later’.

It was a strained relationship at the start. That’s called rivalry. Time and respect changed that.

His final 80 in Leinster colours comes tomorrow in the Rabo final against season-long front-runners Ulster. Teams that have led the league from the gun tend to get caught. When you’re going hard and consistent all season, is there the extra gear when it matters, to take it to another level in a final? There’s another thing. The Ulster celebrations when they beat Leinster recently in the RDS. You can be sure the dancing, skipping, fist-pumping exploits of Johann Muller will have been replayed several times this week. That won’t be lost on the Leinster players. Ulster have beaten them twice this season, but Leinster will be steely for this one.

The feedback I’m hearing is that Joe Schmidt treated the Amlin like a Heineken Cup. The minute they were knocked out of the main competition, they set their stall out. They are so fixated on doing the double now. And the Nacewa, Sexton and Schmidt last-game incentive.

The key will be whether Brian O’Driscoll plays. If he doesn’t, it changes the Ulster playbook.

With O’Driscoll, it’s about presence and in professional sport, presence is key. With him at 13, Ulster will go around rather than through while if it’s Madigan and McFadden, they’ll be thinking differently. They’ll test them whereas they’d give O’Driscoll the benefit of the doubt.

Madigan is a big threat but he will struggle as a 12 in Test rugby. He isn’t a D’Arcy. Darce is unique. Give him a one-on-one and he’ll struggle to get over the gainline, but give him four fellas to face and he’ll manage to get five yards over it. He makes the most complex of situations look easy and the simplest of situations look difficult! Some man.

Schmidt will leave a really good set-up after him. Leinster have done a lot of things brilliantly in recent years, one of which is serious squad unity. That’s not an easy thing, and it has to be managed really closely, which it has been. That’s a compliment to the new Irish coach.

What is crucial in any set-up — and will be again in Racing, with such a squad size — is the players from numbers 23 to 33 in a squad (or in Racing’s case 23 to 42). That’s a team in itself. How do they feel about themselves, what value do they see themselves bringing to the team, are they being listened to, appreciated? And how do you mix that with keeping your best players on the pitch? Leinster are Ireland’s best at present, though I’m not sure Ulster are No 2. They’ve been more consistent in the Rabo but were hugely disappointing in the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens while Munster won a quarter-final and pushed a team in Clermont all the way in the semi-final.

Either way, there’s a lot on the table tomorrow in the RDS. The minute you exit Europe, the focus put on this competition is huge. There was always a sense of panic when you were knocked out of Europe and suddenly all your focus was on the Rabo.

Priorities change. We were in Portugal on a family holiday after the 2011 Magners final win over Leinster. I was there with my family, as was Mick O’Driscoll. We met eight of the Leinster team enjoying themselves in the sun for a week. The craic at the pool was good by day with the usual slagging. For years we’d been telling them to enjoy the Celtic League successes and leave the big stuff to Munster. This time though they were after winning the Heineken Cup. One day by the pool, the waiter arrives over with a bottle of Magners on a tray, with a glass of ice and a message from Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden. ‘Well done on the Magners, Rog’. I was firmly put in my place. Not for the first time by the Leinster lads.


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