This all kicked off with a throwaway comment in the gym, says Ronan O’Gara.
Or what I presumed at the time was a throwaway question from Dan Carter. Would I like to coach in New Zealand some time?
Of course I would.
I thought no more of it, and I doubt Dan was playing matchmaker either at the time. He presumed I was going to be at Racing 92 for a few more years.
But the weight of his conversations with the Crusaders were clearly of greater substance than he thought.
Like any shooting-the- breeze chat it passed but a while after, Dan brought the subject up again. And this time, it seemed like he wasn’t just passing time between deadlifts.
‘I hate doing this, because I want the best coaches here at Racing, but I have to tell you, the Crusaders are asking and I’ve given you a strong reference.’ Deadpan Dan. They want to pursue this.
Head coach Scott Robertson made contact, as did the chief executive, and it seemed we were chatting notionally until they said ‘we’d love if you came on board!’ And I’m thinking: ‘Well if that’s what’s in your head, you had better formulate some sort of concrete proposal’. The Crusaders may just be the leading club in world rugby, but in my head, I am only focused on family and future. There are six people in my house who don’t need to remind me they are perfectly happy where they are in Paris. The Crusaders had to be fully committed to wanting me rather than just sussing out my interest, because I am in a good job and in a good place at Racing 92.
And ever since, I’ve just been head down, arse up, driving on with things.
Last night, I was in London for a special Centurions Club dinner for internationals with over 100 caps. A tasty affair. On Sunday Racing entertain Montpellier and a week later go across town for the Parisian derby with Stade.
In between, I have to find time and space to complete final coaching badges which I had to long-finger due to my involvement with the Irish tour to America last summer.
And that’s all before the opening of the U Arena on December 22 and, my last game with Racing, and a subtle reminder, I am sure, from Jacky Lorenzetti, our club president, of what I am leaving behind!
After Christmas in Cork, I have a long flight to the southern hemisphere to weigh a few things up.
I’ve always trusted my instincts, and my instinct here was that this is an incredible opportunity.
It wasn’t even me out there, looking to move on. In the greater scheme of things, some people may not see the relevance of the Crusaders making the approach, but it’s very significant from where I stand.
Of course, it’s another completely selfish move on my behalf.
That’s why the agreement is for one Super Rugby season, and then both parties will review how things have gone. But this won’t work without Jessica and the kids with me. It’s the other side of the world and as important as my rugby career is to me at this stage, my family is my family.
It is a huge upheaval, and we are still firming up a plan that makes all this as workable as possible for the family. This is the human side in all this.
We have already agreed that if and when I am done in New Zealand, it will be back to Paris we move.
I will hopefully have a little time out at that stage and we want the kids to do another year in school in France to nail the language.
I know what you are thinking reading this: what if the first season goes well with the Crusaders? That’s a bridge I am not ready to cross yet.
That Racing and the president, Mr Lorenzetti agreed to release me from my contract, is a huge obstacle off the table in terms of principle. The lazy observation on Jacky is that he has bundles of money, but he is a fiercely driven, successful business man who is very proud of his club. And yet, he was completely understanding of my dilemma from the moment he heard it, and perhaps a bit proud that Canterbury had come to his club to seek out one of their trainers. We have enjoyed a very honest, clean relationship and without his understanding, the move to New Zealand wouldn’t have gone through. That’s the reality because I wouldn’t walk out on my contract.
I’m old school on things like that. But it didn’t stop him asking me four times whether I really wanted to leave Racing. I think he could see I wanted it.
However, the learning curve over the past four seasons has been significant, not least from the two coaches, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, the only men to win a Bouclier with two different teams. Not one day in Plessis-Robinson, our training base, has been the same.
How could it be with such a pot pourri of cultures, from Georgian, to Welsh, Argentinian, French, New Zealand, Tongan, Samoan and Fijians. Eleven different cultures mixed together on the pitch and in the gym every day.
What it has also done is provide for me an invaluable insight into New Zealanders, which means I have a better grasp of personality and idiosyncrasies before I start work in Christchurch. Dan Carter and Joe Rococoko may just be two of the most respectful people one could wish to meet given what they have achieved. They are incredibly humble, and it’s a hugely positive impression to take with me to their own country.
Greg Feek the same. He was coaching Ireland even when I was playing, but because he was dealing with front rows, there was no little or no connection there. Then we landed in America together last summer and clicked big time, just shooting the breeze and chatting rugby and coaching and how people learn differently.
I have no doubt his opinion was sought too by the Crusaders, where he is well regarded. Greg is the godfather to Scott Robertson’s child, which is incidental in one sense, but offers an insight too into the family-orientated outlook of the organisation.
Ever since Andrew Mertens was with them, I’ve been a fan of the Crusaders. Maybe I created the connection, but there was always that correlation between Munster and the Crusaders, even when I was playing. The same values - hard-working, honest, having great craic with each other. Virtues I can readily relate to. I’ve met Scott Robertson and now the itch is there to get cracking. I want to hoover up every bit of this experience in SuperRugby in a different coaching role than heretofore. I’ve always been an in-the-moment person but it’s hard not to get excited about this one.
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