"The Ultimate Ambition" - Ronan O'Gara Talks the Appeal of Being Ireland Head Coach - Ruck

“The Ultimate Ambition” – Ronan O’Gara Talks the Appeal of Being Ireland Head Coach

Ronan O’Gara has expressed his view on being the head coach of Ireland, calling the role ‘the ultimate ambition’. Currently the head coach of back-to-back Champions Cup winners La Rochelle, O’Gara has certainly proven his quality from the touch-lines in recent seasons.

The current Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, has been appointed to the prestigious role of British & Irish Lions head coach for the 2025 tour to Australia. Whilst there are no immediate plans in the works to find Farrell’s replacement for Ireland, O’Gara would be a definitive contender for the role should it become available.

This interview was in association with The Winners Enclosure ahead of the Cheltenham Festival and during the Six Nations. The legendary fly half discussed the appeal of taking the reins of Ireland.

“Coaching Ireland is the ultimate ambition. But also when you become an international professional coach you are capable of contextualising what the want is. Coaching England, Australia, Japan, Fiji, or any big team like that around the world becomes very interesting because you hopefully get hold of a group of players that have similar ambition to you. It is up to you to decide the project and take it where it needs to be taken.

“Let players express themselves, play rugby, have fun together and live out their dreams for a short period of time. It is not work, it is not a job, it is a huge passion.”

Interestingly, O’Gara and Farrell’s current contracts are set to expire at the same time. The Stade Rochelais head coach called the circumstances ‘coincidental’, yet he did not deny the draw of taking charge of Ireland should the stars align with Andy Farrell’s departure.

Ireland team to play New Zealand

“I have a contract until 2027. That’s purely coincidental. It had nothing to do with it!

“To coach your country is obviously something you would love to do. But hopefully if you’re doing a good enough job, it can happen soon, or it can happen not so soon, but hopefully it can happen.”

“Where I am now winning two European Cups gives you the motivation for the next ten years, irrespective of what happens. Whether that is coaching a club team or an international team, I don’t really lose sleep over it. That is the genuine truth. I am very content. And inner contentment is the best contentment of all.

“I am in a very happy place in my life. It was so good to see different parts of the world with the coaching. Guided, helped, mentored, advised by some wise people along with your own ability to see things. Then you feel after a while, the jigsaw comes together. That gives you a lot of inner joy. The only thing that matters is your health. I have seen that with so many people.”

“This is my 11th season as a coach. Being at La Rochelle is beyond satisfying. I have to be very grateful. As we speak, we are double European Champions. It is beyond the wildest dreams. But once you taste something, once you are a competitor you want to relive it.

“That is the thrill of sport. That is why you get involved. When you have had a great career as a player, coaching can be so rewarding if you are able to manage your emotions and all your frustrations.”

The Munster icon then explained how he had no exact conversations about taking over as England head coach, despite being in the conversation. O’Gara’s name was firmly in the mix for the role, after Eddie Jones was fired by the RFU back in the Autumn of 2022. O’Gara discussed how he had been in touch with England’s Director of Rugby Performance (and fellow Irishman) Conor O’Shea, yet no specific conversations ever took place about being the England head coach.

“No, not directly. I would know Conor O’Shea, but I didn’t have any chats about the job. I just chat rugby with him from time to time. No, it wasn’t with a view to being England head coach. It was more with a view to potentially what might be best for my career.

“Conor is a good sounding board for me. He is Irish but he is someone who has got out and can see things differently and also has that professional side to him in terms of seeing the bigger picture.    

“Some people become very insular depending on their environment. But Conor would be the opposite.”

Having previously talked about Andy Farrell, O’Gara turned his attention to his son Owen’s upcoming departure to Racing 92. The Irishman is more than aware of the calibre of the club, having been the Parisian side’s defence coach from 2013 to 2017. O’Gara oversaw Johnny Sexton’s run in the French capital, and believes that the move would suit Owen Farrell to the ground, given his status amongst the world’s top fly-halves.

Owen Farrell of Saracens during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Saracens and London Irish at the StoneX Stadium, Hendon, London on Sunday 23rd April 2023 | Photo: James Fearn/PPAUK.

“It is amazing news because it is Owen Farrell. It is not just any out half. It is the biggest name in English rugby in the last ten years. It is a thunderbolt. You can never under or overestimate what is involved in that. It is a significant boost for Stuart Lancaster to have Owen uprooting everything and coming over to play for him. It is a huge signing.

“I think Owen will like the fact that he can get lost in Paris do his own thing and enjoy family life but also have very competitive rugby in what I would consider to be the most competitive league in the world.

A dejected Owen Farrell of England applauds in the direction of the England supporters at full-time following the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on Saturday 11th March 2023 | Photo: James Fearn/PPAUK.

“I was at Racing for four and half seasons. I went there in 2013 and left halfway through the 2017-18 season to join the Crusaders in Super Rugby.  I was incredibly lucky to spend some quality time with Scott Robertson. He really completed the jigsaw for me mentally. I couldn’t speak more highly about him.”

Pivoting away from Farrell, O’Gara cast his attention at a fly half who has been providing wondrous performances for Ireland. Jack Crowley has emerged as a ‘gem’ in the eyes of O’Gara, in what is praise of the highest order from one Munster halfback to another. O’Gara has kept track of Crowley’s progression since his early career, and believes that he has the qualities to nail his name to the Ireland 10 jersey. O’Gara drew many parallels between the 24-year-old Crowley, and a young Johnny Sexton that eventually succeeded him in the Ireland squad.

“He (Jack Crowley) has done brilliantly. They were two different games, one with everything to gain against France, and one with everything to lose against Italy. He backed up everything he did in Marseille. I think we have found a gem. He is 24 so it is about time he is shifting gears.

“I have watched him for a number of years from school rugby upwards. I always thought he had what it takes. He needs to flourish now. 

“In a small country like Ireland there was always going to be a big debate about who was going to fill the number 10 jersey after Johnny and whether they would be able to.

Jonathan Sexton, Captain of Ireland looks dejected during the Guinness Six Nations Match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on February 23. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“Anyone who knows anything about top flight sport, the show always goes on. There will always be someone to take over and more often than not they turn out better than their predecessor. Johnny excelled in his career. But a lot of it was down to hard work as opposed to natural talent. Crowley is a very good rugby player. He has a big, big future ahead of him.”

Casting his view upon the current Ireland squad, and despite being ranked at second in the world, O’Gara believes that the Six Nations front-runners feel ‘hollow’. This emptiness comes from yet another quarter-final exit at the Rugby World Cup, as the All Blacks eliminated Ireland to add another chapter onto their final-eight curse. O’Gara has faith in his side to rally back against the other Home Nations, given his perspective on the risky style of rugby shown by England, Scotland and Wales.

Conor Murray of Ireland looks to clear the ball as Maro Itoje of England looks to block during the Autumn Nations Cup match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on November 21 2020. – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“They have been incredibly consistent. Their massive regret will be the start against New Zealand in the World Cup. It is too hard in a quarter final to reel in.

“They have won 19 of their last 20 games which is an outstanding record. But the one game in the whole country was that game. It feels quite hollow at the minute. But the fact they have reacted so well reminds everyone of their mental fortitude.”

“What accelerated them (Ireland) on to a different level to any of the other teams is the way they dismantled France. Very few teams in the world, if any, can do that in Marseille. It is a very hostile environment, and it was the first game of the tournament. Ireland had not had a game since the World Cup. That’s really impressive preparation. It has to be a very cohesive group to have the capacity to do that.

George Ford of England kicks cross field during the Six Nations Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 10 February 2024 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“Look at the England, Wales and Scotland and France games in the last round, as a neutral you would be disappointed by the standard of the rugby. If Ireland play anywhere near what they did against France then I think they are better than the other teams.

“There is a risk involved. A team can be 20 points better than another on paper, but in reality on the day may get caught out one time in 10.”

Try Celebrations for Ben Earl of England as he goes over for a try despite the tackle of Cameron Winnett of Wales during the Six Nations Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 10 February 2024 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

Rounding off, O’Gara gave a humerous insight into the fallout from his now iconic French team talk. The video did the rounds on social media, given how O’Gara’s fluent French was spoken in a thick Cork accent. O’Gara explained how he was not aware that his team-talk was being filmed, and how he has endured a few laughs at his expense following the footage coming to air.

“TV cameras become your norm when you’re 25 years into the game. We were in our team room, we had just won Europe and we had a week off and we were preparing for our Top 14 semi-final. I didn’t know there was a camera in the room.

“There was a lot of excitement in the room. It was a mixture of French and English. People enjoyed taking the p*** out of me! But if you can’t laugh at yourself then what? It was funny.”

“What rugby needs to do is grow an audience and you need entertainment as well as rugby. The hardcore within the sport will always be results and performance focused. But there are always about 80% of the people, want a good day out, want entertainment, and want free flowing rugby.

“If it becomes a kick fest, a very narrow game, rugby will lose out. The more thinking outside of the box you do, the more creative you are, the better.”

Finally, O’Gara gave an excellent insight into his love of horse-racing, as the famous Cheltenham Festival draws closer. The Gold Cup gets underway on the 12th of March, with O’Gara re-calling his memories of sneaking out of Ireland camp to enjoy the Gloucestershire festivities.

“Rugby always got in the way of Cheltenham and I could never go as it’s in the middle of the Six Nations. Although I did sneak out for a couple of days and one night. It felt like two nights because it was very tough. We didn’t sleep.

“We started drinking on the Monday! The craic was mighty. Singing away. Then having a good day’s racing. You’re hungover and it’s tough but it’s so enjoyable because you just get caught up in the whole thing. It is fantastic. What a Festival. What a place.

“It’s unbelievably popular with Munster and Ireland teams. And the Lions. Rugby players are very fond of racing. There are very similar interests between rugby and racing in terms of the people who get involved.”