Ronan O’Gara cut a confident and contented figure in Brisbane a fortnight ago – as well he might as the backs coach of a well-oiled Crusaders machine who had just disposed of Queensland Reds 22-12 to rack up their 18th successive Super Rugby victory.
While the Super Rugby title holders were missing two of their superstars in Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock, who, in common with a number of All Blacks, are being micro-managed in a World Cup year, they still unveiled a formidable array of firepower.
Former Ireland and Lions No.10 O’Gara is in his second year as architect of the Crusaders’ attack – part two of a burgeoning coaching career that began at Racing 92 in 2013 following his retirement and has continued apace Down Under, where he has already added a Super Rugby crown to the Top 14 title he won in 2016.
It represents a remarkable rise up the coaching ladder for the 130-cap schemer – a brave one, too, for a man who elected to move his wife and five children to the opposite end of the globe on the advice of another fly-half legend.
“I got a recommendation from Dan Carter,” O’Gara, 41, said. “I was coaching Dan at Racing 92 and he was an ex-Crusader, so when ‘Razor’ (Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson, below) was looking for someone a bit left-field to bring in, I got chatting to him and got offered the job.
“I’d been working with Dan every day for two years. When you do that, you know what they’re made of and what they’re all about. I really enjoyed that period after he joined Racing and, for me, he’s probably the greatest rugby player of all time.
“To work with him on a daily basis was really challenging but very rewarding. There were a lot of other good players at Racing and it was my first coaching gig out of playing, so I was thrown in at the deep end which was challenging for a number of years.
“By year five I was getting into it and then, all of a sudden, you get a call to leave one very good club, with a really good president who wanted to progress my career, for another. I had to walk out on a good bunch of boys, which was difficult, but Racing’s still not the Crusaders, who, for me, represent one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
O’Gara sees parallels between Crusaders and Munster, the Irish province he represented with distinction between 1997 and 2013 and with whom he won two Heineken Cups and three League titles.
He explained: “The history at Crusaders is interesting in the fact that from 2008 to 2016 they hadn’t won the Super Rugby title, so they had a lot of barren years and were on a journey before Razor came on board and managed to win that title in 2017.
“The most important thing is we have momentum as double champions and everyone’s trying to knock you off your perch. It becomes very rewarding when you’re managing to find solutions and keep winning games.
“It’s like Munster in many ways; it was very player-driven at Munster and the Crusaders are very player-driven as well – and they’ve got a really good head coach and assistants I’d like to think add a lot to how the team operates. It’s a great environment to work in in terms of trying to improve players who want to be improved, and very rewarding.”
Working on the ground in New Zealand, O’Gara is well placed to judge how rattled the All Blacks have truly been by their recent defeats to Ireland. However, he believes it is still way too early to tell how the World Cup is going to pan out this autumn.
“You just can’t say at this stage,” O’Gara said. “As you’re seeing in the Six Nations, teams are gaining momentum while other teams have slowed a bit, but that will keep changing and you’ll only really know when the actual tournament starts.
“I think New Zealand has realised that Ireland, England and Wales are realistic candidates and that it doesn’t have to be a Southern Hemisphere team that wins it this time. There’s not a lot between
potentially six teams in the world and it will come down to who gets energy and momentum during the pool stage in Japan.
“The great thing, though, is that compared to other World Cups there are a lot of potential winners – and I wouldn’t have said that before now.”
NEALE HARVEY / Photo: Getty Images