Racing attack coach Mike Prendergast well knows there is no education like adversity. Twenty-nine months ago he was down on his luck. Oyonnax had just been relegated from the Top 14, the Irishman’s second successive French league demotion after his previous employer Grenoble had gone the same way the year before, but he didn’t flinch, didn’t doubt his methods despite the unsettling results.
Instead, he quickly gave the top flight another whirl at Heyneke Meyer’s Stade Francais and despite the culture clash that emerged there with a South African boss grappling some mutinous French employees, Prendergast’s own specialist work was vindicated by him becoming a man in big demand in summer 2019.
Toulon’s Patrice Collazo, whom he played with at Gloucester, wanted him to head far south. Racing 92, who had just lost Laurent Labit to the France set-up, wanted him to stay right where he was in Paris and swap life at Stade Jean-Bouin for the La Defense Arena pyrotechnics eight kilometres away.
It was a tough call. Toulon are on the rise again, their improvement illustrated by how they will take on Bristol next Friday in Aix-en-Provence in the Challenge Cup decider. However, Racing are no slouches either, Prendergast’s decision to row in with them vindicated by their progress to next Saturday’s Champions Cup final.
Coaching in the European showpiece is a dream come true for the 43-year-old. He sat on the bench unused in 2002 when Munster were beaten by Leicester in the ‘Hand of Back’ final, pocketed a winner’s medal four years later after he featured early on in the famed campaign where the Irish province finally went all the way.
All the while, he had begun laying the foundation that now brings him to Ashton Gate in six days’ time, looking to seal the deal once more. “When I was young in my early years at Munster, I’d a couple of injuries, my cruciate, my shoulder,” he told RugbyPass, taking a brief detour down the memory lane that was the making of him.
“I actually thought it was going to finish me because I got a couple of injuries, one after another. It was a long period and I thought Munster might have called it a day, but luckily they offered me the opportunity to continue.
“From then I had it in my head that I wanted to coach because I was only 23 and thought I was going to be finishing up. So even when I was playing I kept my finger in it, doing courses, always writing down little bits and pieces I would have taken from coaches over the years, and then travelling opened that a bit more as well in terms of going to play for Gloucester and Bourgoin.”
Still, despite that head start while a player in the noughties, it’s quite a leap from the salt-of-the-earth surroundings of Tom Clifford Park and the amateur level All-Ireland Club League with Young Munster seven years ago to where he is now, an epic voyage of discovery in France that has him on charge of some glittering world superstars at Racing.
It commenced as skills coach at Grenoble, Bernard Jackman the initial conduit at a club where Prendergast’s brief expanded to defence and attack coach stints, and it has culminated in an attack/backs coach role at Racing that has a twist, coaching the players around the ruck after he absorbed like a sponge the teachings of Paul O’Connell with whom he was at Stade.
He’s not shy either in picking up the phone when needs be, mentioning how Joe Schmidt’s take on prevailing breakdown trends was something he tapped into during the lockdown layoff. “The ruck’s an area I take a lot of passion in and it was something that interested Laurent (Travers).
“As well as an attack coach, you have to rely on the forwards coach or someone else to occupy the ruck but with me as an attack coach, basically working with Paul O’Connell for a year I took a lot from him from around the ruck, so that was another option I could do and Racing were interested in that.
“I knew it would be a good fit and this is my second year of a four-year contract. I knew there was that bit of security in terms of trying to build something, not just for me but for my family as well. We had moved around a bit and I just wanted that security to spend time with one club because professional sport can change so quickly and over here you see it happen that staff and coaches move around.”
— Racing 92 (@racing92) September 29, 2020
There’s an old saying, though, that stars can’t shine without darkness and Prendergast’s tough experiences on the way up the ladder in France make him an ideal operator in extracting the best from the best at Racing.
“Teams like Grenoble, Oyonnax, it’s a very difficult challenge to try and stay in the Top 14,” he said with a nod to how he earned his stripes before arriving in the plush door at Racing to an extravagant cast, Finn Russell, Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas and Simon Zebo just four of the many attacking jewels he now polishes.
“It wasn’t very difficult to build a rapport with them,” he explained. “I know from the outside how it looks and even with the (fancy) Arena we play in, but these guys are very grounded, very down to earth, very hard working.
“I have been to different clubs and had good experiences but here it’s something different. In terms of environment it reminds me of home Munster-wise, the boys are very friendly with each other, they all work for each other and the foreigners who come in buy into it. We have a good culture here. Henry Chavancy, the captain who has played over 300 games, epitomises what is going on.
Rugby is France was still recovering from the 2018 nightmare of three players tragically dying on its playing fields within a seven-month period when we spoke to Mike Prendergast earlier this year.
“My mentality is you give them a framework and leave them express themselves within that. You don’t want to take from what they do so well. It’s maybe something they appreciate as well, that you’re not going to take away from someone like Finn Russell or Simon Zebo or Virimi Vakatawa what their strengths are.
“Within that framework you allow them to express themselves and encourage good decisions within that. When you do that and you’re consistent about it and there is a system around the ruck, it’s about players then trusting you as a coach, believing you and trying to grow together. That’s something that is still in progress but it’s happening.”
Prendergast doesn’t duck the leading question either about who has impressed him most during his 16 months. “Finn’s a very impressive guy. He’s got a huge skill set, is a world-class player and has this ability to make a very late decision on the line which is quite hard to defend.
“So Finn would definitely be one, and another would be Donnacha Ryan. I played with him, coached him, but just his influence here, his calming influence, he adds so much to us here in terms of rugby intellect, passing on so much good information.
“Finn is a very calm guy. He isn’t someone who would be roaring and shouting on the pitch, or barking orders too much in the video. He silently does his work to help the team and Donnacha is another who has been huge in that area.
“I’m sure it was probably the same with the likes of Dan Carter and others who came through the gates before. Joe Rokocoko, who is still in the club’s academy, Ronan O’Gara, Johnny Sexton, they implemented stuff, brought a different mindset, and maybe that is just being appreciated now.
“When you marry all those things together that’s where we have arrived at, just a good, honest, hard-working group that work for each other in an environment that has been building over the last couple of years.”
This serenity was encapsulated by the late sucker punch try that dethroned Saracens in the European semi-finals last month. Other teams would have tied themselves up in knots, behind on the scoreboard and flustered with time running out. Not Racing. Prendergast had his homework done and his hunch that there would be late-game space in behind the cover was on the money.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 26, 2020
“I don’t really calculate the hours, I just enjoy doing what I’m doing. I enjoy scouting teams defensively to see what they are at, to see where space is. Then what I will do is I ask the players, get Finn Russell to go away and scout as well. We’ll then sit down and come up with a plan.
“It was great execution and vision,” he added about the jaw-dropping, game-deciding attack from inside their own half. “There are a few moving parts around it and it shows a very good understanding of each other. That’s the one thing that is quite strong here, just their understanding of one another and that has happened over time, the likes of Finn and Virimi who link well and guys like Juan (Imhoff) and Teddy Thomas.”
Beaten in finals in 2016 and 2018, finally bagging a European title would mean so much to the Fench club. “We have two big massive posters in our changing room. One is about winning the Top 14 and the other is equally the same size and the same importance about trying to win the Champions Cup.
“It’s on level par here and there’s massive desire to win it. There has been a great buzz in the last few weeks. Obviously, there was a small knock-back with the (Covid-19) cases but we have moved past that in terms of what our focus is.
Back in action, but with a much-changed XV https://t.co/ykxK7L2a6R
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 10, 2020
“Jacky (Lorenzetti, the club owner), he was with us at Thomond Park last November and he was blown away by it. He sees the value in the Champions Cup, sees how much it is respected around Europe, and everyone is massively looking forward to the final.”
Exeter, though, bring with them some fingerprints recognisable from Prendergast’s past. “What they do that would remind me of Munster is they are really consistent, extremely consistent. They are in their fifth Premiership final and that speaks for itself, shows exactly where they are at. If you’re doing that you have to be a good team.
“They have a very well drilled pack set-piece wise. Inside the 22 they are ruthless, they always come away with scores, but they have a mixture and blend as well. (Joe) Simmonds at 10 is a new guy on the block, a very composed footballer, and then you have got a potent back three, which is not too dissimilar to ourselves, good counter-attacking and very dangerous with any spilt ball.
“Then you have got someone like (Henry) Slade in the middle who can vary his game, has a very good passing game. They have got a very good balance to their team but in terms of Munster back in the day, there is that building and they have got there from just being consistent like Munster were during those early 2000s.”
That was the long-ago era which planted the seed in Prendergast to coach and next Saturday is the day it can all now come to glorious fruition.
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