RONAN O'GARA: The long road back to Cork is only getting started

I feel my career as a coach abroad is just getting started, writes Ronan O’Gara

Next week, City Hall is conferring the freedom of Cork City on me, an honour and an occasion I am immensely proud to be part of.

The ceremony also bestows recognition for the sport of rugby in Cork, something that wasn’t lost on me earlier this week scanning the Blackrock horizon with an impressive new Páirc Uí Chaoimh almost complete.

In terms of its abstract perks, I don’t have any sheep or cattle to be driving down St Patrick St, but wouldn’t it be nice if, in a few years, we witnessed a couple of Rugby World Cup quarter-finals at the new Páirc?

Better still if it could host a European semi-final for Munster, as the Aviva Stadium did in Dublin a few weeks ago. I don’t think it will be long before there will be such moves — maybe as soon as 24 months depending on the right fixture.

Cork is a proud sports city. And Corkness is a thing. We are, in my experience, driven, determined, hard-working, and competitive. And not a bit arrogant. In a sporting context, some outside Cork look upon us through the prism of Roy Keane, which is a bit simplistic and presumably based on one episode.

Would I like to be managing Roy Keane? Or Ronan O’Gara? As a player, I accept I would have been quite challenging of those around me, and of game plans. I wanted to understand better why we were doing it, and never just accept ‘this is what we are doing. Do it’.

How would I deal with that 24-year-old O’Gara? I think about that one most days. It’s only when you go into coaching that you see things from another perspective and I have to remind myself that a player’s mind works differently. If you want him or her to be in tune, it’s not necessarily the best idea to impose your coaching masterplan on a player. We ask ourselves, what works best for the positive mindset of the player, so that he can, and will, buy into the coach’s idea? If there’s not buy-in from the key individuals in the dressing room, it’s not going to go well for management.

I visualise 24-year-old O’Garas around me now when I’ve nailed a presentation and made great points to the Racing 92 players. Because I know that the criteria for good coaching has changed; now the biggest challenge is whether there is a transfer of my work from the training pitch to the match situation. You try, as a coach, to create as many match-based scenarios as possible during the week, more difficult situations than they will face on the Saturdays. The likelihood then is you will get a good performance from an intelligent player. The balance between instructive coaching and empowering the player is so important. If that sounds like jargon, it’s not. Rugby is a simple game, so a coach cannot be obsessed with players following instructions to the letter. You don’t want robotic defenders and attackers. You are presenting scenarios A, B, and C and expecting them to see what’s in front of them and decide accordingly. The days of playing one way are pretty much obsolete. The adaptable, smart player is king.

There’s a fanciful narrative that I hear most times we’re at home in Cork that it’s only a matter of time before I return to a coaching job in Ireland. That every month spent in Paris is a month closer to coming home. It’s a nice theory, but it’s nowhere even close to being true.

If anything, I feel my career as a coach abroad is just getting started. Racing play Bordeaux-Begles this weekend to ensure ourselves a place in the Top Six play-offs and that’s as far into the future as my focus can be. In two years’ time I may (or may not) be at the end of my time with Racing, but there will be another project somewhere before I would have any thoughts of coming back to Cork. Whether that be in France or somewhere else. It’s not that I don’t give our future a lot of thought — there’s hardly a day passes that I don’t.

That’s why I mentioned the demands of coaching a player. The goalposts are moving by the week in professional sport. I would be very keen, within a few years, to establish a coaching ticket that I can go forward with as a unit, and perhaps get the nod from a club president to be appointed en bloc to a good set-up. And then hopefully, if successful in that environment, bring that team of people with me wherever the right project crops up. I have names and combinations in my head. That’s what dreaming is for. It’s a management ticket from any and every corner of the world, people I have played with and coached alongside. I don’t know the composition of that coaching team now, but I think about it every day.

For me — and this is a big statement — the management team at any club is as important as the playing squad. I’ve learned that. And I would have to have that. It would enable us get a massive return out of a good group of players. I am four years into coaching, but the recognition is always there that, in terms of experience, I still have a relatively shallow CV. But I know enough to appreciate that management chemistry and expertise is fundamental. Reading that, I accept some will think ‘what is that fool talking about, everyone knows that’. But within that point, anyone in proper team management will understand what I mean.

If Racing claim victory tomorrow night at home to Bordeaux, it gets us a play-off fixture. I know the Ireland tour is on the horizon, but at the moment, everything is geared towards the final weekend of the regular Top 14 season. I’ve always struggled to look over the fence at the next but one obstacle. That’s why looking two years down the track is an impossible thing for me to do. I am almost clueless on that, but I’d be amazed if the next play was back at home in Ireland. Much as I love Cork!

Rugby is changing, and the changes are coming faster and faster. Management teams are going to be changed more often. In France, the new JIFF (jouers issus des Filieres de Formation) regulations on squad composition comes into effect next season which will change the landscape of French rugby for overseas players. From the 2017-18 season, every Top 14 and Pro D2 club must have a minimum of 14 qualified players in their 23-man matchday squad. The penalty for breaches is docked points. To be eligible, a players must have spent three seasons in the club’s Academy programme or be licenced to play for France for five seasons before they’re 23. Bottom line? Despite all the money washing around the game here, it will be more difficult for an overseas player to get a gig in the Top 14.

Speaking of indigenous talent, it was nice to see Darren Sweetnam recognised as the Munster Young Player of the Year yesterday in Cork. There appeared to be a few legitimate contenders for the senior player too, and it’s a nice boost for Tyler Bleyendaal to get the award after a difficult Champions Cup semi-final.

2017 Munster Rugby Awards: Front Row from left: Darren Sweetnam (Young Player of the Year), Joy Neville (Referee of the Year), Tyler Bleyendaal (Player of the Year), Siobhan Fleming (Women’s Player of the Year), Conor Oliver (Academy Player of the Year). Back row from left: Michael Knightly, Fethard and District RFC (Club Mini Section of the Year), Michael Hoyne, Clonmel RFC (Junior Club of the Year), Barry McGann (Hall of Fame Award), Peter Scott, Presentation Brothers College, Cork (School of the Year), Martin Brislane, Nenagh Ormond RFC (Club Youth Section of the Year), and Jerry Holland, Cork Constitution FC (Senior Club of the Year) at the Maryborough Hotel, Cork. Picture: James Crombie
2017 Munster Rugby Awards: Front Row from left: Darren Sweetnam (Young Player of the Year), Joy Neville (Referee of the Year), Tyler Bleyendaal (Player of the Year), Siobhan Fleming (Women’s Player of the Year), Conor Oliver (Academy Player of the Year). Back row from left: Michael Knightly, Fethard and District RFC (Club Mini Section of the Year), Michael Hoyne, Clonmel RFC (Junior Club of the Year), Barry McGann (Hall of Fame Award), Peter Scott, Presentation Brothers College, Cork (School of the Year), Martin Brislane, Nenagh Ormond RFC (Club Youth Section of the Year), and Jerry Holland, Cork Constitution FC (Senior Club of the Year) at the Maryborough Hotel, Cork. Picture: James Crombie

Another former Munster player of the year, James Coughlan, confirmed this week he will retire at the end of the season. A good Cork man who worked hard for everything he got. Want to know how sadly competitive I am? When James got that Munster award in 2011, I was fairly ratty because I reckoned someone else in the squad should have got it…

Told you we are a competitive lot.


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