independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Portrait of a man who cared too much

O'Gara gave more than he needed to in documentary filled with insight and truth

Ronan O’Gara looks on from a TV studio during the Heineken Cup final
Ronan O’Gara looks on from a TV studio during the Heineken Cup final

Just before the credits rolled on Dave Berry and Nathan Nugent's documentary, there was one, final, hiccupped glimpse of the self-absorption that made Ronan O'Gara such a unique competitor.

He was talking about his life in Paris now, about wrestling with the necessary process of adjustment. When he first arrived, he instinctively threw himself into Racing Metro's physical preparation, as if the club had signed him as a player, not a coach.

Soon, he stopped doing that. But the point of separation jarred.

"I still feel like I'm going to play," he sighs to camera. "It's weird. I still feel that there's 10 minutes in me for Racing Metro this year. That's the way I feel. I say it to the lads, 'give me 10 minutes, two points down, semi-final of a Heineken Cup, I'm on!'

"But I say that jokingly ... I still think the dream is alive. But they're there, 'Rog, the dream is over, forget it!'

"And I'm there, 'It's not, I could do this, you know ... '"

Watching, you instinctively imagine Johnny Sexton listening to that kind of banter. And what you picture is a domain of half-jokey smiles and faintly shallow laughter. Sexton pitched up in Paris last year as Metro's marquee signing. The Lions' starting Test out-half in Australia; Europe's leading No 10; One of the Top-14's highest earners.

And O'Gara came through the door behind him, instinctively selling (albeit light-heartedly) something that, by inference, he felt Johnny might not provide.

That was the beauty of Thursday's documentary. It captured the jagged teeth of O'Gara's rugby personality as much as the sheen of a remarkable talent. It did so by splashing light into a mind full of hunger and neurosis. We might like to think otherwise, but -- often -- the greats in sport set their own moral code.

DISLIKE

For many, Ronan O'Gara was easy to dislike throughout an extraordinary playing career because of the narrowness of his focus, a streak of selfishness that could create the sense of the world orbiting around him.

His ability to control a game, to hold a refrigerated nerve whilst all about was just noise and emotional frenzy became almost unique in the modern game. Yet, the documentary proved no love letter to those moments. It was filmed over the last four years, drawn to the flickering candle of a career suddenly becoming something that it had never been before. Expendable.

Watching Sexton anointed as his chosen successor, O'Gara's candour finds expression in the language of paranoia and hurt. He senses his identity being stripped away and seems particularly hostile to Declan Kidney's role in the narrative. His rugby relationship with Kidney stretches all the way back to school days at PBC in Cork, but -- from that intimacy -- now springs the hostility of sundered family.

When Kidney selects Sexton for a November international against South Africa in '09, O'Gara palpably feels something sacred inside of him being tugged away. A close-up camera shot catches his expression, all woolly hat and rueful smile, as Sexton lands one impeccable kick after another.

"I've never been hurt like it before," he reveals later. "But I suppose what hurt me more is the fact that, you know, I know Declan well. I think he'll say it was very tough, but he enjoyed playing Johnny Sexton. He wasn't having a look, I was dropped.

"I've had Declan all my career. From a motivation point of view, from a team point of view, I think he's very good. But tactically and from my game point of view, he has very little role. So for years, it's not as if I blanked him out, but he doesn't have any impact on my week. I'll be always trying to push standards and push game-plans and I knew, once he had another alternative, I reckoned he was going to use him.

"And I'd say, you watch, going forward now, the chances he gets with Johnny Sexton, I'd say I'll be watching a lot on the couch."

The insinuation that Kidney might take some kind of perverse pleasure in removing him from the team captures the increasing edginess of their relationship. After a bad 2010 Six Nations defeat in Paris, O'Gara recounts an exchange unimaginable between Kidney and any other player.

"I just said: 'This weekend, it would take a coach with balls to pick me Deccie, straight to his face.'"

On hearing of Sexton's subsequent selection, O'Gara opines: "For this game, he's basically picked him ahead of me. But he'll try and say that he's doing the squad system. I'm the one player from the French game that isn't playing in this game and that's sickening."

Fundamental to his early difficulties with Sexton taking his Irish place is O'Gara's view that a proper apprenticeship had not been served. This soon morphed into a belief that ageism came to colour, not just Kidney's view, but punditry's too, as he reflects: "At 33, I have to play so much better than Johnny to get on."

Defeat and disappointments pitch him into almost cosmic bouts of grief and self-analysis, a personality trait that, perhaps, explains O'Gara's occasional lack of kindness.

A poor Heineken Cup pool performance in Toulon, during which he is sin-binned as Munster are evicted from the tournament, triggers the reflection: "I want to give it up to be honest now, I feel like quitting, I don't want to play rugby anymore. I'm broken. I've had enough."

And that is the essential picture that rings true. One of a man whose only real guilt is, perhaps, to care too much. For he speaks quite beautifully of life with Munster and the qualities that carried them to two European crowns.

"There was huge, collective love for each other," says O'Gara. "That's sometimes what gets you over the line in these things. You can have all the technical expertise, all the skill levels, but love in sport goes a long way."

Love of family beams brightly throughout too, most notably during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. The night of Ireland's memorable victory over Australia, a win that prefaced O'Gara's controversial reflection in a TV interview that he was "done with Ireland in a few weeks," he is pictured talking to home on Skype.

His little daughter Molly tells him "Johnny was wearing your jersey ... "

"You're right," he says, smiling.

"Mommy said: 'Take that jersey off ... "

"Well done Mommy!"

If the programme lacked anything, it was the voice of his wife, Jess. For as O'Gara offered some quite remarkable glimpses into a complex, often anguished personality, there was no access to the story of life dealing with all that troubled energy behind a closed front door. How did Jess cope with the fall-out from a spurious story published by l'Equipe during the '07 World Cup of heavy gambling debts and an unravelling marriage? Who exactly did Rog become when he was at home?

Referring to himself as "this lunatic" in July of 2011, O'Gara admits: "I can't say I'm a very balanced, consistent person in terms of my decision-making."

The programme, naturally, ends in Paris where he now -- palpably -- has found a cathartic release in his relationship with Sexton. O'Gara is seen walking his three eldest children to play-school, Johnny following at respectful distance.

That image is irreconcilable with that of Croke Park in '09 when, after a Leinster try against Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-final, Sexton is seen to lean over his opponent and -- as O'Gara puts it -- bellow, "I'm here and I'm not going anywhere."

Back then, they were just two strangers chasing the one pot of gold.

"It's amazing at this stage that I'm saying, you know, how much I like the guy," says O'Gara now. "I see a lot of him in me and me in him, that's competitive, that's cranky, that's wanting to be the best. And that's, I think, how we get on so well.

"It's funny in the way the whole thing has gone full circle. He lay down the gauntlet to me in Croke Park. I didn't give myself the chance to get to know Johnny at the start. I didn't want to know him because of what he did that day.

"But sure I have done many a thing to him on the pitch that he reminds me of over a cup of Barry's Tea in Paris!

"It takes two to tango and by God did I tango with him and he tangoed with me, that's what you want. But I've no problem saying that I need his company big-time in Racing".

You end up liking O'Gara massively for his courage in allowing the camera capture far more than it probably needed to. Sensing hurt over-runs his story, he hid nothing from the lens. That took guts and, maybe above all, a fundamental humility.

Rare are the men who have both.

Vincent Hogan

Irish Independent

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