In the Racing 92 training complex at Plessis-Robinson in Paris, there they were, writes Ronan O’Gara
The lads. Sitting around a table littered with ‘full-fat’ bottles of Coke for lunch. And lovely big tubs of butter. And they getting quite ratty when the bottles and butter were confiscated.
And me, burning up inside, raging at the standards. The players were employing the ice machine not to soothe aching limbs but to keep their Cokes chilled.
Lads, that’s not the way it works. Someone said that KFC was only 200 yards down the road from the training ground. Not good at all.
That’s all cute and funny from the perspective of nearly five years down the road, but it said something about the standards at Racing that this was kosher back then. It’s been quite the journey for them to a second Champions Cup final, one I am still invested in five months after leaving the club.
If I was still in France, I’d be going to a Champions Cup final this weekend. Playing Leinster. Wouldn’t it be great?
I want Racing to win in Bilbao. I understand it’s an Irish province they face, but a good chunk of me is in that club, an investment that was as much emotional as technical. I am keen for the rest of Europe and the rugby world in both hemispheres to see these fellas perform to the levels I experienced on a daily basis.
That would give me a lot of pride if they lift the Champions Cup, franking their own personal development.
Behind every player there’s often a wholly different dynamic going on at a human level.
Sometimes the player you see is the same person in street clothes, more times the player the public sees is nothing like the person. It’s only when you get to deal with such a
diverse group of personalities every day that you understand the difficulty and the importance of getting people in that dressing room to connect.
There’ll be 23 involved tomorrow, but at Racing there’s another 30 lads behind the scenes that you won’t see, but are proper men as well.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a few clowns and wasters in most groups, but it comes back to that thing about living the culture, not talking about it. When you are living it, you don’t realise that it’s all around you.
It was everyday life for me at Munster and Ireland, and even a little bit in the Lions camp. It’s only when you go somewhere where there isn’t a strong culture, and there wasn’t at
Racing — the standards were poor — that you understand what a debilitating effect it can have on your mission.
So, we built these things in little blocks. In the meeting room, in the dressing room, on the team bus.
Boys who had big plays in a game, or who had scored for the first time, got called to the top of the bus to sing a song. That hadn’t been done in France, because it’s not a tradition, it’s not in the culture. But it was a massive thing in Munster. If you’re on a bus with 30 fellas plugged into their headphones or stuck in their laptops, it suggests they don’t enjoy each other’s company. It’s too easy now to be like that, because everyone can be glued to the phone — me included at times.
The importance of breaking through that with old-fashioned values is significant. You can’t clap along with a mobile phone in one hand. I took the mic and went up and made a clown of myself in French, but that’s what you do.
Singing badly, but breaking down barriers. You can’t have walls on a team bus. You leave your ego at the door. Of course, there was a cringe factor for a while, but you persist with it and it becomes a bit of craic.
Some fellas can sing, others hadn’t a note, but it brought everyone out of their shell. You could see fellas growing in front of you. Consequently, making a point to the same player in video review wasn’t as difficult. If you’re able to sing in front of the group, it’s not such a problem to be the subject of a bit of video scrutiny, either.
It’s a lesson that’s been confirmed for me since I arrived at the Crusaders; it’s very good to feel comfortable about being uncomfortable.
Should I have stayed in Paris? No, but I still miss it. French rugby is brilliant. When you’re there, it’s intoxicating. I was absolutely in the grip of a good buzz there and after the nightmare of 2017, this was always going to be a good season at Racing.
There’s too many good people in that club not to get serious again. I had no interest in leaving, but the Crusaders don’t come knocking on many a fella’s door, so when I got the opportunity, I felt I had to take it.
Being involved, too, in the current campaign, 15 of the Top 14 games and four of Racing’s Champions Cup pool games, means that I am engaged tomorrow not just emotionally but technically and tactically.
It was very decent of Dan Carter this week to reference the change in defensive culture at the club, but what he didn’t get into (and mightn’t know) is that I messed up in not changing the defensive system a year ago.
[timgcap=Dan Carter and Ronan O’Gara]DanCarterandRonanOGaraJun17_large.jpg[/timg]
After we won the Top 14 in 2016 at the Nou Camp, I knew in my heart of hearts we had to change up the defence. I feel like I lost a season.
The boys were ripe for a new stimulus after winning the Bouclier, but because we essentially were limited to a ridiculous four-day pre-season heading into the subsequent campaign, I opted against it, fearing I couldn’t implement it in time and do enough work pre-season to bed it in.
That was an error.
What they have now works extremely well. I am not going to be going into any great detail in the column here, because I want Racing to win tomorrow and Leinster have enough of smarts without me drawing maps for them.
The old system had been successful for three seasons, but you can’t keep flogging the same horse and my gut told me to change and have it ready to go for the next season. I didn’t, but at least now they are working a defensive system I am convinced works very well for them.
Considering the form he’s been in, the loss of Maxime Machenaud is a big blow, but many won’t appreciate that the two back up nines are really good players.
Teddy Iribaren is the ex-Brive nine, who was first choice scrum-half at the start of the season before Max found his mojo. He’s a little greyhound with a good kicking game and the heart of a lion.
Xavier Chauveau is not the best trainer in the world, but he’s a serious athlete and competitor and is as hard as nails.
Fergus McFadden is a player I’d have on my team every week. He epitomises everything about what Leinster have going at the moment and he will be missed, too, but Max is the heartbeat of Racing this season and he’s an 80% man when it comes to goal-kicking.
That’s taken the heat off Pat Lambie to allow him run the game, and the South African has been exceptional in that respect.
But if I was still on the coaching staff, I’d be pushing hard for Dan Carter to start.
In 25 minutes against Munster he made eight tackles, and his first intervention was to catch Simon Zebo on a 30m lateral run and rattle him to the ground. The guy is an insane competitor and the best man in the world for the big occasions for over a decade.
The two years in Paris working with him have been the most beneficial to me as a rookie coach.
Just being exposed to that nous on a daily basis. It’s only when it’s over, you are left thinking, ‘jeez that’s a big void there now’.
I got him at the most experienced stage of his career, when he had all that knowledge accumulated and, when you are training twice a day, that’s four brainstorming sessions with him, before and after each session.
As good as things are with the Crusaders, there isn’t an individual here like Dan Carter. Then again, where is there one?
Johnny Sexton has been very good in this campaign and is operating at a serious level of confidence. The way Scarlets were dismantled in the semi-final was very impressive.
I hope I am wrong, but Leinster will win the final, in my view.
They will be able to maintain intensity longer than Racing, even though the French side has more of an X Factor. They really do. If Racing can get all the individual components to meld into one fully focused force over 80 minutes, they are proper dangerous.
The forwards will put in up to Leinster and Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas could win a game on their own.
The fear is that Racing are undisciplined at crucial moments. If they don’t give up stupid penalties, they have a chance of staying in the game. They must not feel they have to win it in the first 40.
In a final, if things don’t go to plan for favourites, even the best can become rattled, even the most composed lose their nerve. Luke McGrath hasn’t played in a while and a lot of the Racing lads will know plenty about Johnny.
They will try to get under his skin. Then again, they won’t be the first side to try that and fail.
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