Ronan O’Gara has no plans to follow Johnny Sexton home at the end of the season.
Certainly not when there are so many pressing questions. Riddles to be solved. Why, for instance, do players at French clubs shrug when balls are fumbled at training? How can French sides be so brilliant one week and abject the next?
It might be a bit ambitious to tackle age-old French problems just 16 months after relocating to the country, particularly as an “outsider”, let alone attempt to re-engineer French psyches in a second tongue, but last Saturday the Racing Metro coach claims he saw evidence his efforts at extracting more vocal contributions from the players are beginning to work, despite a 23-19 Stade Francais loss.
“The biggest thing is they don’t communicate, so getting them to speak is the first thing,” O’Gara says. “And, for the first time, it happened last weekend against Stade Francais, which is a big step. The Irish team is very vocal. The communication is very good.
“In Ireland you drop a ball and it’s scamper, get down on it. In France, the ball is left there, the coach throws another one in. While in an Irish team it would be, ‘Get the ball you fucking prick and get it back into the team.’ It’s not the easiest to take on the French fellas in their native language.
“I think an awful lot of it is tradition. I think the Top 14 is a small bit like the FA Cup. The ability of the third division sides in soccer to down the giants. When teams go to Oyonnax, when they go to Brive, the whole town is in the stadium that night and these boys are just psyched for 80 minutes and they know the following week they’re away and 12 of them won’t play.
“It’s a serious case of them targeting their home games and there’s just an unwritten rule you don’t lose at home in France. I think that’s the mindset of the coaches, too. But, as an outsider, you try and alter that.
“I don’t want to come home, because if you come home you’re coming home for a reason and there’s no reason for me to come home. I have so much learning to do. I’ll be away for years.”
O’Gara says he needed “breathing space” to evaluate where he was after retiring from playing last year. After that period of reflection he hooked up with Racing and Johnny Sexton in the Paris suburbs and although he says Sexton is right to return to Ireland, O’Gara is happy to hone his coaching skills and give his five kids the opportunity to learn a new language.
“You just have to go away and see how the world works, you know? If I wasn’t enjoying it I’d be back in Cork. I don’t have to be there. I suppose what drives me is I get a serious buzz and drive from trying to get the best out of people. I was that player and I got great help from an awful lot of people. I think it can be hugely frustrating, and hugely challenging, but for me it’s about seeing a player grow in confidence over a certain period to where they are now.”
He has been watching from afar the development of the current Munster side under Anthony Foley. He sees a squad that doesn’t possess the same strength in depth as in previous years but one that is already challenging perceptions.
“I think Leinster thought Munster were finished, that was the perception around Ireland. That Munster aren’t at the races. If people are being honest, that’s what it was. And they got hosed.
“I know Axel. I’ve played with him my whole career. He’s hugely intelligent, smart, a great footballer and knows the game. He knows how he wants to play, we saw that in the Aviva, and I think he’s very passionate about it. He’s talking about trying to win silverware and that’s where Munster should be. That’s a great attitude. Munster will never be a team in transition.”
Last weekend, perhaps with the start of the Champions Cup this weekend in mind, he stuck on an old video, let some nostalgia into his new life and was reminded of what else invigorates the side.
“I watched Munster-Sale on Saturday from 2006. If you want to see Thomond Park for atmosphere, have a look at that game. It’s staggering the impact the crowd can have on a Munster team. I was blown away. Any time there is a rolling maul or lineout drive, the crowd are going absolutely ape.
“Will it be there for European days? Yes, it will but you can’t expect it to be there for Rabo games or Guinness games. That’s the mentality in Munster, but there will be a different atmosphere at least for the European Cup. You can say it’s a lack of professionalism not treating each game the same but that’s the way we were raised down there.”
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