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Irish influence strong as La Rochelle and Racing bid for place against Leinster

Ronan O’Gara, Mike Prendergast, and Donnacha Ryan are all coaching in France.

THE LAST TIME Ronan O’Gara, Donnacha Ryan, and Mike Prendergast were all in the same Munster matchday 23 together was an inauspicious night at Thomond Park in January 2009 as Matt Williams’ Ulster won in Limerick.

Though all three were probably showing some hints of their future careers as coaches, they could never have guessed that the next chapter of rugby would lead the three of them to an all-French affair in the Champions Cup semi-finals.

That’s the case today as O’Gara’s La Rochelle, whose forwards coach is Ryan, take on a Racing 92 team driven in large part by attack coach Prendergast [KO 3pm Irish time, BT Sport/Virgin/Channel 4] in Lens.

To be fair, anyone looking at the Munster squad in 2008/09 could have guessed that it included a few professional coaches to-be.

Jerry Flannery has excelled with Harlequins in recent years after opting to leave his role as Munster forwards coach in 2019. Paul O’Connell is now a crucial part of Andy Farrell’s coaching team with Ireland after stints with the Ireland U20s and Stade Français. 

Denis Leamy is currently with Leinster but is set to return to Munster as their defence coach, working alongside Prendergast as part of the new-look staff at the southern province next season.

Right now, Prendergast has his hands full as Racing 92′s attack coach, having made a great success of his time in French rugby. O’Gara is still in his first season as the top dog at La Rochelle, while Ryan is in his very first season as a professional coach. 

mike-prendergast-with-the-media Prendergast is returning to Munster this summer. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Prendergast has made a big success of shifting his life to France in 2013 when finished up as Young Munster’s director of rugby to join Grenoble as their skills coach alongside Bernard Jackman. Over the course of four seasons, Prendergast’s influence grew and grew.

In 2017, he moved on to Oyonnax and though the club was relegated in his only season there, Prendergast managed to add to his reputation as their excellent attack nearly kept them up.

The 2018/19 season brought him to Stade Français and though Prendergast got to work with his good friend O’Connell, it was a frustrating year for them under then-head coach Heyneke Meyer.

Limerick man Prendergast has been with Racing since 2019 and had another year left on his deal before Munster and the IRFU managed to get him out of that contract early in order to bring him home.

He has directed Racing’s attack impressively in recent seasons, bringing important detail around their phase play shape, kicking game, and set-piece strikes, but managing not to stifle the creative instincts of some of their star players. He is known as a clear communicator and enjoys an excellent relationship with the likes of Finn Russell, pushing his players to take decision-making responsibility within his frameworks. 

Prendergast is a superb addition for Munster and should be an important signing as they look to finally bring their attacking play up to scratch at the top level of European rugby.

Lots of Munster fans would love to see O’Gara coming home too but he’s well settled in France, is contracted with La Rochelle through to 2024, and appears to be very content where he is.

ronan-ogara O'Gara is loving life with La Rochelle. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Like Prendergast, he first moved to France in 2013 to link up with Racing at the same time as Johnny Sexton. O’Gara had four seasons in Paris, working as their defence coach in a period when they won the Top 14 and reached their first Champions Cup final.

He then spent two successful years as backs coach with the Crusaders in New Zealand before returning to France with La Rochelle in 2019, first working under director of rugby Jono Gibbes but becoming the big boss for the first time this season.

The next few weeks will determine whether O’Gara views his maiden campaign in charge as a success but La Rochelle are an ever-growing club with a loyal fanbase and good resources who look like being contenders for years to come.

They already have a strong team and O’Gara has made plenty of signings ahead of next season, with Ultan Dillane, Thierry Paiva, Georges-Henri Colombe, Antoine Hastoy, and UJ Seuteni all set to come in.

Interestingly, O’Gara has also signed wing Teddy Thomas and impressive back row Yoan Tanga, who both start for Racing against La Rochelle today. 

Ryan has become an influence behind the scenes alongside O’Gara this season, taking on his first coaching role having retired from playing after four years with Racing.

The Tipperary man had offers to keep playing but has long been renowned as a lineout and maul guru, so O’Gara’s invitation to take over as La Rochelle’s forwards coach piqued his interest. 

donnacha-ryan La Rochelle forwards coach Donnacha Ryan. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This season has probably been a whirlwind as Ryan goes through his French coaching course at the same time as actually doing the job, none of which is in his first language, but the La Rochelle pack have maintained the high standards previously drive in part by Gibbes.

While Prendergast and O’Gara are now well established in the world of coaching, Ryan is only getting going with life after playing, but he shares great rugby intellect and a big work ethic with his former Munster team-mates.

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As La Rochelle and Racing bid for a place in the Champions Cup final against Leinster, the Irish influence will be strong.

Racing 92:

  • 15. Max Spring
  • 14. Teddy Thomas
  • 13. Virimi Vakatawa
  • 12. Gael Fickou (captain)
  • 11. Juan Imhoff
  • 10. Finn Russell
  • 9. Nolann Le Garrec
  • 1. Guram Gogichashvili
  • 2. Teddy Baubigny
  • 3. Trevor Nyakane
  • 4. Bernard Le Roux
  • 5. Anton Bresler
  • 6. Wenceslas Lauret
  • 7. Ibrahim Diallo
  • 8. Yoan Tanga

Replacements:

  • 16. Camille Chat
  • 17. Eddy Ben Arous
  • 18. Cedate Gomes Sa
  • 19. Baptiste Pesenti
  • 20. Boris Palu
  • 21. Maxime Machenaud
  • 22. Antoine Gibert
  • 23. Henry Chavancy

La Rochelle:

15. Dillyn Leyds
14. Jules Favre
13. Jérémy Sinzelle
12. Jonathan Danty
11. Raymond Rhule
10. Ihaia West
9. Tawera Kerr Barlow

1. Dany Priso
2. Pierre Bourgarit
3. Uini Atonio
4. Thomas Lavault
5. Rémi Picquette
6. Wiaan Liebenberg
7. Victor Vito
8. Grégory Alldritt (captain)

Replacements:

16. Facundo Bosch
17. Reda Wardi
18. Joel Sclavi
19. Romain Sazy
20. Matthias Haddad
21. Arthur Retiere
22. Levani Botia
23. Pierre Popelin

Referee: Matt Carley [RFU]

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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