FOR A MAN who became a legend in the Heineken Cup, this season’s version of the marquee European club competition has been an utter frustration.
Now working as an assistant coach at Racing Métro, Ronan O’Gara has seen his side win just once in their four pool games to date. As a result, the Paris-based club have little to play for heading into the closing two rounds of group games against the Scarlets and Clermont.
Ahead of the clash with the Welsh region tomorrow night at Stade Yves du Manoir, the former Munster and Ireland out-half admitted to the TheScore.ie that it has been difficult watching Racing play their way out of the Heineken Cup.
“Of course, yeah but sure it’s equally as frustrating for the players. So, it’s a collective effort. We’re just not a cohesive unit at the minute and players and management are trying to achieve that. It is frustrating, but that’s sport.”
O’Gara knows a thing or two about sport, having amassed 128 caps for Ireland as well as winning two Heineken Cups with Munster. In his first season as a coach, the adaptation process has been testing for such a determined character.
Dealing with frustration as a player was easier; simply get onto the pitch on match day and leave everything out there. There was a satisfying physical aspect to ending a bad run of form; be that slotting a place kick or releasing an outside back to score. O’Gara has had to accept that he simply doesn’t have that outlet anymore.
As a coach, all your work is done Monday to Friday,” the Cork native said. “Saturday is game day, it’s player time. You see where they are, you have a little window at half time to change things, but you have all your preparation and work done really.
“Hopefully the players take on board what’s gone on during the week and it comes to fruition on the pitch.”
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been apparent at times this season that the Racing players have adopted the ideas of O’Gara and head coaching duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers. The back-to-back losses to Harlequins in Pool 4 featured a very poor performance at home, although there was some improvement at the Stoop.
Back-to-back defeats to Harlequins have cost Racing Métro dearly in Europe. ©INPHO/Andrew Fosker.
The fact that the domestic league is held in such high regard in France means that for many supporters, the Heineken Cup is merely a sideshow, sometimes even an annoyance. However, O’Gara rejects the idea that this attitude sometimes extends to the French coaches and players.
The all-time leading Heineken Cup points scorer [1,365] admits that the Top 14 is king in French eyes, but points out that Racing made a determined start in Europe this season.
“It is yeah, but I think to be fair they do [care about the Heineken Cup]. At the start, we beat Clermont at home and then had a draw with Scarlets away. The goal was to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for this first time in Racing’s history.
“That unfortunately is gone, so it’s a case now of making sure we get into the top six in the Top 14.”
O’Gara, speaking from Paris, stresses that one of the true reasons for the club’s unconvincing displays in Europe has been the difficulty in stepping up from the French league. The Top 14 is a dour, turgid affair much of the time in the winter months, and the 36-year-old feels that has played a role.
When you go from the Top 14, which is a slow game, to the European Cup it’s hard sometimes. I think the pace of the games shocked some of our players. We couldn’t deal with it in the first game against Harlequins, although the performance away wasn’t too bad. So it’s a case now of trying to deal with the speed of the European game.
“I think it’s part of a work in progress. Obviously, there’s lots of different playing cultures here, the language barrier and it’s a new team. It’s probably just a little bit slower than we would have thought as a management team. It’s constant work and we’re just trying to find a bit of rhythm in our play.”
Two rounds of European action in the next two weeks provide Racing with an opportunity to do exactly that, but O’Gara freely admits that their sights are already set on the resumption of the Top 14. Lying eight in the table, but just nine points off second-placed Stade Français, league targets are the real concern now.
“Essentially the focus now is on the Top 14, so whoever plays well in the next two games is going to be playing against Toulouse.”
O’Gara is a pitch-side presence at every Racing game. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
That clash with Guy Novès’ side on the 25th of January has taken on a sudden and genuine importance for the entire set-up at Racing, from reserve players right up to multi-millionaire president Jacky Lorenzetti. The fixture against the team from the ‘real’ home of French rugby in the southwest is seen as a potential turning point in Racing’s season.
There are 10 games left in the regular schedule of the Top 14, with five of those coming at home for Racing [Toulouse, Bayonne, Castres, Biarritz and Clermont]. On the road, fixtures in Perpignan, Bordeaux and Grenoble will also be targeted. A Parisian derby against Stade Français in March could be crucial.
The point is that Racing can still save this season. Presently just three points off the play-off spots [and qualification for the Heineken Cup next season], there is much to be played for if the form can be turned around. For O’Gara, that successful league run could actually be sparked against the Scarlets tomorrow night.
I think it’s the case of it being a home game; we need to win this home game. We need to find some way of achieving more consistency in our performances and I think the best way of preparing for the Toulouse game is by winning the next two games.
“We just need to try and play in the Top 14 games with more intensity, although weather conditions are difficult at the minute.”
You wouldn’t expect it any other way, but O’Gara believes Racing can salvage their campaign. Castres showed last season that any team in the play-offs can emerge as Top 14 champions, no matter how little they are fancied.
O’Gara is maintaining the faith, as ever.
“Absolutely, that’s the realistic goal – to get into the top six. Then everything is open. That’s the reality; if you get into the top six, it’s all to play for. If you don’t, it’s going to be hugely depressing.”
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