Wednesday 20 September 2017

Ireland star reveals torment of retiring in a compelling film

Ronan O’Gara driving with Johnny Sexton in the back of his car in Paris
Ronan O’Gara driving with Johnny Sexton in the back of his car in Paris
O'Gara and Johnny Sexton celebrating an Ireland victory
Ronan O'Gara celebrating with the RBS Six Nations trophy in Cardiff in 2009
O'Gara and with his son, Rua
Ronan O'Gara and his wife Jessica. Photo: Mark Condren
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

IT'S an old line, about all political careers ending in failure; but athletes get the same dose, only more so. Decline and disappointment are not just inevitable, they're natural.

Bodies wear down, parts wear out, time overtakes you. One day you're a superstar with a god's physique; the next you're creaking, washed-up, old. That's sport. That's life.

Rugby icon Ronan O'Gara is 36, hardly ancient, and has embarked on an exciting coaching career with Racing Metro -- but the sense of an ending permeated last night's 'ROG'. Nathan Nugent and Dave Berry's excellent film began and ended with something similar: O'Gara in Paris, engaging with his new life. . . and wistfully wishing it weren't so.

He said in the opening scenes: "It's all about playing, and I can't get that buzz back. . . it's horrible," then echoed those sentiments at the conclusion: "Everything comes to an end, I accept that now -- but it's very difficult to accept. Because you love it so much, it's hard to let go."

In between was a dramatic, revelatory and amusing film. The pervading tone was, if not downbeat, then certainly sober, even melancholy.

And what surprise? Sport is a never-ending battle against disappointment. For all the cliches about it providing great memories and joy unconfined, in reality there's far more bad days than good. As Ryle Nugent pointed out: "Unfortunately, sometimes, dreams don't come true".

It seems a lonely, rootless life in many ways -- travelling, being apart from family. And of course, the final, inescapable kick in the head: your playing days end.

Which returns us to O'Gara's inability to fully accept that. He claimed he did, more than once, but you felt this was in an abstract sense; his heart disagreed.

In one minute, he's saying that being dropped for a game last spring made it "definite" that he was "finished". In another, he's joking about how he could still do a job on the pitch; the punchline, O'Gara admits, is that he's not totally joking. That's the curse of being a sportsman: recognising that the final whistle has blown, and for you, it won't blow again.

As a film 'ROG' was very well made: just the right amount of sentimentality without slipping into schmaltz or pulling on the heartstrings with stirring music and whatnot (although O'Gara's 'Mighty Munster' mythologising, orchestra swooning melodramatically, was cringey). Mostly, and thankfully, it didn't indulge in too much "sport is the meaning of life" nonsense. It presented us with a man, a life and career, and those were compelling enough. Even to a non-rugby fan, ROG was thoroughly enjoyable and sometimes fascinating.

O'Gara himself is a fairly compelling character. Sportspeople by definition aren't massively interesting; their obsessional natures make them great athletes but dull people. But O'Gara, in fairness, seems as interesting as any of them.

He's also very honest. Not in the usual sense of revealing private details or settling scores, but with himself, at the core of who he is: he didn't shy away from fears, disappointments, failures, though they were obviously painful to remember at times.

Even when ego and pride were on show -- for instance, comparing Johnny Sexton's three caps to his 95 at one stage -- the Corkman was only being honest. Not necessarily likeable, but honest, and besides, that's how you need to be to succeed in sport. It doesn't, contrary to received wisdom, only inculcate positive values.

O'Gara, by his own admission, has always been sports-mad, tunnel-visioned, but he came across as more likeable than that suggests: not a boorish jock, just a guy who loved the game and took it very seriously. There was a lot of sporting jargon, but also insight and self-awareness; he seems a decent chap, with a sense of humour.

The programme ended with a clever montage, showing O'Gara kicking a penalty, at each stage a different age: college days up to the recent past. The last shot was him gazing into space, in the rain, frowning, concentrating, competing.

He'd described himself as "the luckiest, proudest young Cork boy who's worn the green jersey." In fairness, O'Gara was a bit more than that. You'd wish him well, and hope he finds new meaning in his professional life, now that the music has ended.

Irish Independent

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