Ronan O'Gara: Out of the England reckoning and here's the reason why...

When you are as happy personally and professionally as I am in La Rochelle, it would take something quite remarkable to change course from remaining here for another few seasons. 
Ronan O'Gara: Out of the England reckoning and here's the reason why...

PLUS CA CHANGE: La Rochelle coach Ronan O'Gara, who's ruled himself out of the running for the top England job. Picture: Photo by XAVIER LEOTY/AFP via Getty Images

THIS is how the day rolls. On Wednesday, we headed into La Rochelle to buy a pair of golf shoes for JJ. He’s 12 now and has been shaping around with clubs from the garage but got drowned last week playing in runners and we reckoned it was time to go proper. By the time we arrived at the golf store, he was eyeing a new set of clubs. By the time I arrived with him, I’d informed the RFU to eliminate me from their consideration to be the next English head coach.

The annoying bit of this episode has been the implication that ‘Rog is a cute negotiator’. If only people knew. It’s incredibly disappointing that some would put two and two together and get it so badly wrong in terms of playing English interest off against contract renewal conversations in La Rochelle.

I had contact from the RFU. It’s England. If you get offered a gig like that – and I wasn’t, to be accurate – then you have to give it due consideration until such time as someone else gets the job or you officially eliminate yourself from the race. That was done in a very amicable conversation this week; ‘I’m not sure if I am making your job easier or harder, but... etc etc’. 

No hard feelings, we may meet again.

La Rochelle are keen for me to stay and I am extremely happy to do so. Contracts are being prepared, but I leave that side of the negotiations to Rhys Parsons, a proud Welshman who works with Wasserman Rugby. He’s a genuinely solid guy and I am happy for him to revert to me when it’s time to sign a document.

Events may dictate otherwise, but the sense is that the RFU will be making their moves after the Six Nations, and there was no good reason to delay my own situation in La Rochelle and mess our president, Vincent Merling around. That’s why I asked the RFU to remove me from any putative list of head coach options.

I don’t believe I was at the top of their list anyway and when you are as happy personally and professionally as I am in La Rochelle, it would take something quite remarkable to change course from remaining here for another few seasons. 

But you have to listen too.

I have no sense of Eddie Jones’ position, but my sense is that the RFU are well positioned either way – Scott Robertson is available and Steve Borthwick is on their doorstep. The idea that Razor will sit tight and hang his hat on being the next All Black coach is a dangerous premise. There’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge between now and the World Cup, and there’s a few sharks in that water too.

It's somewhat ironic all this has been doing the rounds at a time when I am beginning a ten-week suspension for protecting my players. If one had the head space to get annoyed about the inconsistency of sanctions with regard to other leading figures in the world of rugby at the moment, one might get quite paranoid and bitter, but we don’t do that.

There’s been quite a few gratifying moments in my coaching journey but few as raw and emotional as walking onto the pitch at Stade Deflandre last Saturday after we’d beaten Castres 53-7 and hearing the recognition for what we are doing with a standing ovation from all corners.

The terms and conditions of this new ban prevent me from being near the corridors, or the changing rooms on the day of the game. But the matchday prohibition ends at the final whistle, so I can essentially greet my players off the pitch. I wasn’t expecting such a demonstrative show of support but then I shouldn’t be surprised. They’re good people here. We were European champions in May, and thankfully people aren’t that forgetful. We currently lie second in the Top 14, so it’s not all bad.

For every professional coach, there's a faraway hills dilemma at some point in their career. I’d like to try my hand at test rugby at some stage and I am trusting instinct to let me know when the right opportunity presents itself. I am 45 now. Not that it should just be an age-related decision, but I believe there’s a point when you become less a pitch coach and more a director of rugby. 

At the moment, I am riding both horses in La Rochelle. The rhythms of international coaching are very different from the frenetic day-to-day of a club, but that’s not always the negative it’s portrayed as either. You are still coaching rugby. You have to make it your business as an international coach, I would imagine, to chat rugby with players and have plenty of coffees try to create a 'Club Ireland' or 'Club New Zealand' feel. I would assume Andy Farrell has been to a fair number of cafes in Dublin and further south during his tenure.

That’s not possible with the rhythms of a club job, especially in France’s Top 14. This is a beast of a competition, unlike any other in world rugby and anything after this is going to be almost docile. The interesting challenge now, at 45, is staying mentally and physically sharp for as long as I can to connect (a key word) on the pitch – via demonstrations etc - with players who are often more than 20 years younger than me. You don’t want to become the granddad coach in a tracksuit. Show, don’t tell, they say, which is all fine until limited mobility means you can’t always demonstrate what you are looking for.

Each to their own. You adapt and get better at explaining things, I would hope, but there is a tipping point where players subconsciously think ‘ah this fella played three generations before I did’. I’m not there. Luckily even the young fellas in La Rochelle recognise that the game hasn’t changed that much since my time to permit them bullsh*t me about ‘the way things are now’.

I thoroughly enjoy the role of a pitch coach. It’s rare that I don’t take sessions but something interesting and instructive happened this week. When you are the referee and trying to run the session with a minimum of thirty, and often forty, players around you, implementing tweaks and change as you go, there’s a lot going on. 

Often, you're better standing back with the cup of tea in your hands. That's not an age thing. It’s the detail.

I took that welcome step or two back and the assistants drove the session. The perspective was illuminating. I like getting in amongst it, working on the granular stuff, but the important bits of the session are as much about connections with the players as being this screaming guru. You have got to connect with players. You don’t let them look down at the grass when you are talking to them. 

When people speak, eyes up.  When you connect, you do so by looking directly at someone. You can say loads with your eyes. That is how you build relationships. 

That’s why that connection with the support last Saturday was so meaningful. I had come back after completing a six-week ban, then there was the issue with sending text messages and images to the referees’ chief that landed me in more trouble. We had come through an abject non-performance against Pau, had been lucky to beat Brive, there was this talk of me going to England, and with all that swirling around, we produce our best performance of the season against Castres playing good, positive rugby. The crowd got good value for money and they showed their love in a way that won’t be forgotten any time soon.

I’ve consistently written and said that the project and family life have to be working for me to be a happy coach. I feel this is really our project now in La Rochelle.

I may be here a while.

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