Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Crusaders assistant coach RONAN O’GARA talks about adapting to southern hemisphere coaching, Ireland challenging the All Blacks and the state of Springbok rugby.
Sport24 asked: What convinced you to link up with the Crusaders coaching group?
Ronan O’Gara: I was attracted to join the Crusaders because I thought it was a challenge that my coaching career needed. (O'Gara joined the defending Super Rugby champions from Racing 92 in January, having served as the Paris-based club’s kicking and skills coach since 2013). Linking up with the Crusaders as backs coach is a great progression for me in my career and, for it to have happened so quickly, is exciting. I had always followed the Crusaders, but had never experienced Super Rugby first-hand. I want to grow as a coach and decided to embrace a new experience. I am now into my sixth year of professional coaching, and when I was offered an opportunity to join a great southern hemisphere club I jumped at it. New Zealand sets the bar in world rugby, and Super Rugby is recognised as one of the toughest international rugby tournaments. As such, to coach in New Zealand is an enticing prospect for any coach. It’s a different game down south to what is played in the northern hemisphere, but it’s something I’m really enjoying. I have only been here for four months, but the transition has gone well so far. I’m sure I can learn plenty from Scott Robertson and the other coaches, management and players at the Crusaders, and I hope that I can also make a contribution to the group by bringing my own experience and philosophy to the team set-up. I believe my time at the Crusaders will enrich my rugby knowledge and improve my training methods.
Sport24 asked: Has adapting to a new team environment proved daunting for you?
Ronan O’Gara: I see every day as an exciting challenge and I was not fazed by entering a new environment. I’ve been involved in rugby all my life, so I have plenty of experience to call upon. I have strong ideas on certain aspects of the game and you need to have players on the pitch reflecting how you, as a coach, want the game to be played. The great thing about the Crusaders is that they are a really honest bunch of blokes, who are trying to get better every week. And, as a coach, it’s exactly what I’m trying to do as well. The modern game is always changing. It has become a multi-phase game, so you have to be organised around strike plays, set-piece defence and your general skill level has to be right up there. There are some things in New Zealand that are done really well and then there are other things that could be done better. As an assistant coach, you are asked your opinion on a few things in order to try to get more of out of the playing group. During my 16-year playing career, I was shown the right values and learnt that hard work trumps talent. In terms of my game philosophy, it’s about playing smart rugby. Having seven smart rugby players in the backline every time they take the field is the goal. On the whole, I have fallen into a system that is really working well and have found a machine that is rolling. The skill levels involved are very impressive, the players possess a great work-ethic and they push each other very hard. New Zealand teams, in general, are used to winning big matches and that helps because winning becomes a habit.
Sport24 asked: Are the Irish the All Blacks’ closest challenger for world supremacy?
Ronan O’Gara: On current form and, off the back of their Grand Slam achievement in the Six Nations, Ireland are New Zealand’s closest challenger. Since Joe Schmidt took over in 2013, he has added a remarkable level of consistency to the Irish performance. They have kicked down every door and have got better. They have strength in depth and there are a host of key players that are in form. If New Zealand welcomed Ireland in New Zealand, you would have to fancy the All Blacks to win. However, if the match was played in Ireland, it would be very difficult to call. The Irish enjoyed a famous win over the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016, but in terms of them coming up with a template to beat the men in black, I wouldn’t say that at all. To be fair, it was an exhibition match hosted at a neutral venue and, at some point, Ireland beating New Zealand was going to happen because the Irish had been knocking on the door for so many years. Defeating the All Blacks after a 111-year wait was special, but we must remember that when New Zealand last visited Irish shores soon after that first-ever defeat, they beat Ireland 21-9. New Zealand are used to winning, whereas Ireland had a one-off big game victory against New Zealand. I believe that until Ireland beat the All Blacks repeatedly, New Zealand will remain the best rugby team in the world. Obviously the big test for Schmidt’s men will be around World Cup time (Ireland have failed to reach the semi-finals at the Rugby World Cup in eight attempts) because teams will peak for the event. However, in terms of winning the Six Nations, I have to say well done to Ireland. What an achievement it was with a game to go. There is a reason New Zealand and Ireland are number one and two on the World Rugby rankings. The IRFU and NZRU follow a central contracting system which, without a shadow of a doubt, sets them up for success. Both unions realise that you can’t flog players and run them into the ground. You have to manage athletes’ workload and understand that the players are assets. Ireland and New Zealand are really good in that regard and remember that they are human beings and not simply rugby players. In the modern era, you have to get the personal side right as well. And, to my knowledge, that is exactly what those unions are doing and you have to admire that approach.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of the Springboks, who have slipped to sixth place?
Ronan O’Gara: I played against the Springboks from 2000 to 2012 and, over the course of my (128-Test) career, they had some incredible players. The Springbok teams I faced compared to the current crop seem to be vastly different breeds. I struggle to see and understand why with the amount of playing talent in South Africa, but I think that if you look at the quality of players the Springboks had a few years back - the likes of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers - it offers some clues. At the minute, the Springboks have been underperforming. I’m sure new head coach Rassie Erasmus will get stuck into that and have the South African players playing to a level that is expected of them in their national game. If you look at the past few seasons, it’s been disappointing because South Africa has traditionally proved such a powerful rugby nation. There are certain behaviours and values expected of Springboks every time they take the pitch and some of them have let it (the legacy) down. I think world rugby needs a South African team that is firing. We haven’t seen that of late, but when I played against the Springboks they were bloody good I can tell you that. (O’Gara played against South Africa eight times and only managed to defeat them twice).
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the South African coaching influence at Munster?
Ronan O’Gara: Whoever is in charge is of relevance, but what’s important is that Munster maintains a world-class level of play (Johann van Graan took over from Rassie Erasmus after 18 months in Limerick). Rassie stepped up to fill the breach after head coach Anthony Foley’s untimely death. When I heard of Axel’s passing, I was heartbroken. We lost an incredible man. The loss of Foley hit Rassie massively, but his brief tenure at Munster was a success because he managed to pick up the pieces and connected with the people and players at the club. Rassie ended with a resounding win over the Dragons, but when it came to silverware they were well off in the end. However, the club is back on track, and Munster’s 20-19 win over Toulon in the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup last Saturday was massive. I’m delighted that they managed to do the business. This is the time of the year when the big players stand up. The buzz is back, but there is nothing like a Cup in the dressing room. My motto is: If you dig in for 80 minutes, the machine will keep rolling. Van Graan’s aim will be to get the best out of his players. Having played for Munster on 240 occasions, I have the most amazing memories of my time. It’s a fantastic club and they have the best supporters in the world. (Munster next tackle the Kings and Cheetahs in back-to-back PRO14 clashes in South Africa).
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