Tonight is the dawn of a new era for Racing 92. And the end of a chapter for me.
The club’s breath-taking U Arena hosts its first Top 14 game against Toulouse, the realisation of one man, Jacky Lorenzetti’s dream, and we all have a special incentive to christen the new home with a victory against the more storied club in the country.
Some of us have more than one reason to hope it is memorable.
Tomorrow morning, the O’Garas get on a plane en route back to Cork with Racing 92 and all that in the rear-view mirror. It’s been an experience I am unlikely to forget but more importantly, one I will continue to draw on for quite a few years to come.
There’s been no hullaballoo this week, it’s been business as usual for us all. I went out with the players for a meal Wednesday night and a few beers will be had tonight. But this is professional sport and everyone moves on quickly. Thats the reality. Irrespective of who you are, players are accustomed to coaches being sacked, they become acclimatised to turmoil, players coming and going. It happens. There is none of this emotional attachment that you might see in Munster. They treat it as business.
This is the life I know. Planes and training grounds. I have little idea what ‘normality’ feels like, at least not since the days working in ‘Gentleman’s Quarters’ on Patrick Street when I was a first year in UCC!
The June Sunday I walked into Cork Airport in 2013 heading for Paris and a new career venture seems way farther back than four and a half years ago. Coaching outside Ireland was a very conscious strategy. I wished to travel, to get out there and spread my wings a bit.
I had only played a Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont 10 weeks previously. If you go straight into playing with Munster and hanging around Munster for life, you believe that it is the only way, but by getting out there and seeing what else is on offer, you can make that assessment for yourself.
I knew I wanted to coach, and I wanted it known. You put that in the right ear. The way it works in France, the agents knew exactly who is looking for what. You get chatting.
‘There might be something in Stade or Clermont or Racing. Would you be interested?’ I would. Keep my name in the hat. The two Laurents, Travers and Labit, signed as head coaches for Racing at the same time, it was an international club with a global staff, Johnny Sexton was on the way. Paris was appealing.
I had been speaking a while to Dougie Howlett about The Next Step. Only in the final couple of seasons as a player did I begin to process and filter what he was saying. His logic was making more and more sense. Get out there, learn your trade, fill your playbook. Outside your comfort zone, you don’t so much question the decision as the decision questions you. It asks you awkward questions. Things you didn’t sign up for.
Your head is in a spin. You are retiring from something you absolutely loved. And comparing your current situation to that of a club at home that was so well supported and was so central to sports conversation every Monday morning.
You can’t eradicate those days when Munster fans make you feel like you’re at the epicentre of the sporting universe. Northampton in Twickenham 2000, Lansdowne Road in 2006, Millennium Stadium 2006 and 08. Even in a global context, it’s an incredible feeling to be playing in front of that every week.
Then going over to a team in France, in Paris, where rugby isn’t very popular, where Racing isn’t very big, and you’re thinking: What Is This About?
People will read this and say ‘yeah I know’, but only if you’ve experienced that can you know, and that’s the fascinating bit. You are always judging things against what you had before, in life as in sport. How many clubs in the world, though, have what Munster enjoys in terms of the raw ingredients?
There were upsides, but you had to dig deep for them. It made re-entry into the real world easier in a bizarre sort of way. Racing is littered with big names from around the world and I was a small fish in a big pond. Cold, biting reality was a daily occurrence.
You’re just a body in an organisation with a revolving door. The ability to build something substantial, to forge a real culture, is always challenged by the fact that 10 or 15 new players could come in every season. It’s not a new thing for them, it’s part of the norm and that affects the club culture.
And that was one of the key things I wanted to be a part of changing. I would like to think we have changed the culture of the Racing club. Before, I don’t think there was a foundation for being successful whereas now I believe there’s an environment for the players to come in and expect to win things. There’s a changed mindset in this club and that’s something I take more seriously than virtually anything else.
We need to have consistency of standards. Racing 92 isn’t there yet but it is so much better now than it was four and a half years ago. I have seen, listened to and lived by exacting standards of colleagues and coaches at Munster, with Ireland, and the Lions.
People who have given me a taste of what is required. But you can’t switch it on, it has to be a constant in your life. That’s often the most difficult thing for players to accept, or want to accept — that philosophy of being as good as you can be every day. That’s a demanding way to live and little details can have big influences.
But it’s especially pertinent at club level, where a group of 45 players can be together for a whole season. And if the coaches are not getting their timetables right, you get bored with each other, there’s no buzz, players are going through the motions without knowing it.
Those days seem a long time ago in Racing, the days you were trying to make the rugby enjoyable and get fellas wanting to play for each other. French people do things a little bit differently to Irish, that’s not to say it’s any better or any worse. Because it’s good in Ireland to get a fella to stand up and sing on the team bus doesn’t always mean it’s the same in France.
But I’ve learned that the whole journey of coaching is connecting with the players. It can’t be a coach who thinks he is making great points if he isn’t getting buy-in from the players. That’s Joe Schmidt’s greatest strength, he gets serious buy in from the players.
Donnchadh Ryan, for instance, had a big game for Racing last Saturday against Castres.
I was pleased that his colleagues are now getting to see the Nenagh hardness that he brings. If Donnchadh can get that pack performing the way he did in Munster, he has great material to work with.
He is hard naturally which is a good trait. He has awkward hips and elbows, he doesn’t mind rolling up the sleeves, that edge comes naturally to him. Other have to feign it.
Europe is still very much alive for Racing. I am leaving at a good moment. The Champions Cup game against Munster will be a tasty affair. If Racing are at full strength and have Dan Carter and Pat Lambie back, they will be a dangerous proposition.
The way we have bounced back from the non-season last year satisfies me. Winning the Top 14 at the Nou Camp in 2016 was a highlight but it became a millstone last season in terms of getting up again. It’s an interesting dynamic.
That was a great learning and something I will bring with me to a Crusaders team that won the Super Rugby title last season. They have their own values and culture but you’d still like to think there’s experiences too that can be offered.
What will smoothen the move to New Zealand over Christmas is the fact that Jessica and the children will all travel with me now, instead of following on in a month’s time. That works better, but we will be retaining residence in Paris as the kids will be returning to school here in France for another year. We will see what I do at that stage.
Obviously a player or coach joining from the northern hemisphere isn’t an everyday thing in New Zealand, but the Crusader organisation has been brilliant thus far in assisting with the logistics of the move. The squad is on a two-week break from yesterday and we all resume training on January 8.
The transition time will be short, which is how I want it. Next week is for taking stock. Tonight, is about maintaining our position in the top four against Toulouse, who are just a point outside. We trained this week in the U Arena and there was a little sense of envy that this is home for everyone at Racing 92.
Zeebs, you will be blown away by it, as will everyone else, irrespective of where else in the world they have played. It sets new standards.
Munster’s standards appear to be heading back to where they once were too. They might have looked in bother for 15 minutes at Welford Road last Sunday but after that, you could see they had too much bottle for Leicester. Unrelenting is the word I would use, and they won the crucial contacts again.
They are doing a lot of things well again, and the Tigers might have been better concentrating on themselves than complaining about the referee and the rules. Their discipline was appalling, but that comes from the environment you create. Citing the Premiership as some sort of benchmark is an old English fallback, and a none too convincing one either. Maybe they should be looking at the whitewash over two weekends in the Champions Cup as a more reliable barometer.
It’s another positive that Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander have signed new deals to stay in the province. Stander could have come to France for big money but his passion for Munster and Limerick is not counterfeit.
When he retires, he will be up there with the big signings Munster have made, but to preserve that legacy, he will need to maintain that value system into the future. The supporters aren’t stupid either.
It’s not as easy to pick holes in Munster any more. They are doing the business on and off the field. There has been a dip with Saracens and everyone else in Europe is scrambling to match the consistency of Leinster and Munster.
It’s no bad way to finish 2017.