From France to Fendalton: A new set of coaching goals

6 January 2018

By New Year’s Eve, we had disconnected the television at the house in Paris, so I had to slip next door to a pub-restaurant I knew prided itself on multi-screen sports. Montpellier-Brive was on one channel and off in the corner, with a few quiet seats underneath it was coverage of Racing 92’s trip down to Oyonnax.

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The strangest bit was standing there watching the plays and all the players I was a central part of a week earlier. Marc Andreu got the decisive intercept try via something we have been working on all season. When it was done, I went back home to the packing.

Life goes on. A week earlier, Racing had opened the U Arena with a shamrock embroidered on their shorts. There was a little memento of my last game sewn into the jersey. There was a bit of planning went into recognising an Irish man’s departure on a night that should have been all about a new stadium opening.

The performance was excellent for 20 minutes, and when your only focus is on pressing that advantage home, you are not thinking ‘this is my last game here’.

It doesn’t come into the head until afterwards. I received some unbelievably touching texts from Racing players, lads you would not have thought would be so raw with their thoughts.

And that was more important than any other gesture, impressive as they were from Jacky Lorenzetti and the club. That’s why you do this job, to connect with players, to get the best out of them by connecting with the person in the first instance, not the player.

I will always say I enjoyed my time in France. It’s very hard to explain the charm of the Top 14 unless you actually live it. It’s a marathon, and anyone who has run 26 miles understands why it is so difficult psychologically too.

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In the Top 14, you’ve got to get yourself up for 26 games. And there’s real relegation. In Ireland, we don’t understand what real league is because everything is geared towards the European Cup, which is about getting up for nine games maximum. The Top 14 is a grind, but when it comes to life, it’s an adrenaline rush.

What Racing 92 has done is educated me about the person. That you must be able to adapt to the conditions and the personalities around you every day. To accept that making a compromise does not mean a sign of weakness in management terms.

What I mean by that is you strive for perfection daily, but nothing is perfect and you have to do the best you can within the confines of what you have. Otherwise you are looking back too much to move forward.

I thought it was important before boarding the flight to Christchurch to sit down once more with Dan Carter and Casey Laulala to go over things, to further explore cultural idiosyncrasies. They are very proud of their association with the Crusaders and their delight for me joining the organisation was as genuine as it could be.

What they couldn’t help me with was the logistics of packing and moving a squadron of O’Garas to the other side of the world. We needed a minivan and a trailer to move our life to New Zealand. If anyone believes moving a pack around the field is challenging, come visit when we are moving back to Paris!

Where my air miles provided me with an edge was the distribution of family across the aisle on the flight from Paris to Singapore, Jess and the five across one row, and poor Dad on his lonesome in the row behind. Result…

We arrived in Christchurch Wednesday local time, and were met by Crusaders team manager Shane Fletcher. Judging by the baggage, he feared he had signed a team more than a coach.

We have a house for a month in the Fendalton area of Christchurch to see whether we want to pitch tent here or look elsewhere. My first meeting with Crusaders management is at a barbecue on Sunday, which finishes up their summer break.

These things will take a bit to get a northern hemisphere head around. I had a look at the Crusaders gym. It looks like a place of work. No flash, just a good working sweatshop. Like the facility at Cork IT actually. The players will be drip-fed back into training from next Monday, with the All Blacks returning at the end of January.

Settling in has gone well. I watched Leinster-Munster again on the laptop. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have some delicious talents on their hands. It’s been a while since Thomond has seen a try like Jordan Larmour’s. But bestowing on them the notional title Europe’s best side is premature. It’s January. We are still in the pool stages. Tarzan and Jane comes to mind.

Back in France, they have appointed a trio of part-time coaches to the new France No 1 Jacques Brunel. Former France players Julien Bonnaire, Sebastien Bruno, and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde have been drafted in by Bernard Laporte after dead man walking Guy Noves was fired.

I did my coaching badges with Bruno, the ex-Sale and Toulon hooker. He’s a good guy. Bonnaire hasn’t coached before and Elissalde was let go by Toulouse last summer. It’s hardly stocking up on experience.

International management is a tough enough day’s work and you need to be as organised as you can be. France host Ireland on February 3, and it’s difficult to see how they can be ready and structured for a Six Nations opener in less than a month.

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