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Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 2 March 2021

Prendergast's attack helping to give Oyonnax a shot at Top 14 survival

The Irishman first moved to France in a coaching capacity in 2013 to join Grenoble.

JUST OVER FIVE weeks ago, Oyonnax looked dead and buried at the bottom of the Top 14.

Nine points adrift at the foot of the table and seemingly destined for a return to the Pro D2 next season, les Oyomen suddenly hit a run of four consecutive wins.

Clermont away, Stade Français at home, Bordeaux away and then, perhaps most impressive of all, a home win against Toulon.

Mike Prendergast Mike Prendergast is the Oyonnax attack coach. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

While last weekend’s defeat away to Pau means Oyonnax are still at the foot of the Top 14, they are now just three points off the safety of 12th place.

With four games remaining in the season, the club’s Irish attack coach, former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast, says that Oyonnax are essentially facing into four cup finals.

They take on relegation rivals Agen away next weekend, while there’s a clash with fellow strugglers Brive at home on 14 April before a home tie with Lyon and a final-day trip to Castres.

Many people have been surprised by Oyonnax’s recent run of excellent results but Prendergast says their coaching staff and players felt this was coming.

“Before Christmas, we had five defeats where we got losing bonus points,” says the 40-year-old. “Over here, a losing bonus point is when you lose a game by less than five points, rather than seven.

“We also drew three games, so that’s eight games we either drew or lost by less than five points. It’s an incredible amount.

“You look at us after Christmas and we’ve probably come out on the right side of those scorelines.

“It sounds crazy, but we were quite happy even when we were losing and we knew it would come right – it was just a matter of when.

“We’re in a good place at the moment but, as I said to the boys, no one will remember in five weeks about those few wins unless we back it up now and stay in the Top 14.”

Oyonnax’s defence has struggled hugely on their return to the French top tier this season – they won the Pro D2 in 2016/17 – with their 699 points conceded the worst in the league.

Julien Audy Oyonnax have given themselves a shot at staying up. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

However, Prendergast has made an impressive impact since joining as attack coach from Grenoble last summer, with their try-scoring ability standing out, particularly since Christmas.

Two tries against Toulon, two against Bordeaux, four against Stade Français, two against Clermont, three against leaders Montpellier before that, four against La Rochelle in January.

Prendergast has drastically changed how Oyonnax use the ball and he feels that as the squad has become fitter and more accustomed to his approach, the results have been evident.

“We play the 2-4-2 and I always say it’s a framework and we allow the players to express themselves within that framework,” says the former Young Munster director of rugby.

“When I came in this season, they had already installed a new 4G pitch here. Traditionally, Oyonnax would have been very much a forward-oriented team.

“It was a very hard place to come and win, the weather would often be poor and it was a heavy pitch so they were happy to bring you into a set-piece game. When they installed the new pitch they wanted to change things.

“They were looking to change the club and they managed to get out of Pro D2. They knew they needed to evolve.

“For a coach coming in and putting in a system with that structure, it was quite new for a lot of the boys but they’re an incredibly good group and they bought into it straight away.

“They enjoyed it because you have forwards making little tip-on passes and we focused on the skill level.

“We were probably a little bit behind for a few months in terms of skills under pressure. Because we play a high-tempo, multi-phase game, it’s after six or seven phases that the opportunities start to show and you need to make those criticial decisions under pressure.

Mike Prendergast Prendergast during his playing days with Munster. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“That has improved week by week and I’ve said before that you can do skills under pressure in training but when you’re doing it every week in matches, you can see that improvement. That’s stood to us.

“Another thing we needed to improve is our communication and work rate off the ball. That would be stuff that wasn’t maybe encouraged enough with the boys before and it’s something I’d be really focused on when we do our video reviews.

“Because we play in a pod system, we need to make sure the communication is coming from the pods who aren’t on the ball.

“We make the most passes in the league, we keep the ball in play the highest – albeit we’re still last and we know that – but we have the belief and we were so near before Christmas. It’s come now but it’s only a block of games and the next block is most important.”

Ex-Bourgoin player Prendergast first moved to France in a coaching capacity in 2013 to join Grenoble as skills coach, subsequently being promoted to backs coach. He then co-coached the club’s attack alongside Bernard Jackman, before Oyonnax offered him the opportunity to take full responsibility for their attack.

He has been happy to make steady progress through these positions and Oyonnax have now offered him a multi-year contract extension to continue in his current role.

While other coaches might be in a hurry to get head coach positions, the Limerick man is keen to keep learning.

“You’d love to be staying in the Top 14 obviously,” says Prendergast. “The club have offered to prolong my contract, so it’s a decision myself and my family have to make.

“I’m really enjoying it. It’s a challenge and it’s different but the one thing over here is that you really coach a huge amount.

“For me, that’s what it’s all about – being on the pitch and doing your video work with the players, learning every day.

“Coaching for me is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m in no rush anywhere, I’m in no rush to get a head coach job. I just think you can’t beat experience and I’m getting a lot of it.

Mike Prendergast  and Bernard Jackman Prendergast worked with Jackman at Grenoble. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“There are so many different nationalities playing in France, I think we have 12 here, so that’s also a good experience. You listen to players and how they view the game. You have your own philosophy and way of doing things, but it’s an interesting learning curve and very enjoyable.

“I’m in no rush anywhere.”

For now, a successful final four games of the season for Oyonnax would be a superb achievement for Prendergast to be part of, when so many people had written them off as certainties to go straight back down to the Pro D2.

“If we do manage to stay up, you can grow and build from that. The whole community in the town is really behind everything we’re trying to do.

“The club know they have to work hard off the pitch in a financial sense because every club is getting stronger there and you won’t last unless you’re trying to keep pace.

“They’ve tied down a lot of players they want to keep for a couple of years and they’re really looking to build. Oyonnax has been very much up and down in the last few years, but they are putting down a plan for three or four years now.”

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