Wednesday 18 October 2017

Vincent Hogan: Write or wrong?

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Ronan O'Gara's pride will be in a sling today. He'll feel beaten up by his omission from the starting XV for Twickenham and, probably, a mite regretful that the forensics on Paris got tugged away by such a peculiar current. His letter to the editor of this newspaper, complaining about a Kevin Myers column, served only to oil the hinges of hysteria.

Iconoclasts are the picadors of journalism, endlessly prodding and goading. Myers has few peers in the art, his work stretching from profoundly grave subject matter to articles that amount to little playgrounds of mischief. The trick is in distinguishing one from the other, which Ronan failed to do.

Hence, his displeasure with Myers was seen to override all rational exploration of Ireland's first rugby defeat in 14 months. Even RTE fixated on this story of the journalist, the rugby player and the letter. Ronan had, essentially, reacted to a stray spark with a can of petrol.

Whether the firestorm that followed informed Declan Kidney's decision to demote him for the England game, we will never know. Jonny Sexton was clearly pushing hard; Ronan was always vulnerable.

Yet the letter left O'Gara wide open to a charge of preciousness and it didn't take long for some to chorus their delight with the caw of giddy blackbirds. One former international wondered in a Sunday newspaper if "maybe his milk was too warm for his Coco Pops".

Coming on top of Myers' declaration that O'Gara's selection for Paris showed that "Ireland did not want to win" and a suggestion that he was as well-equipped to tackle the fearsome French centre Mathieu Bastareaud "as Kate Moss", it made for a pretty wounding few days for the regular Irish No 10.

But, more than that, it also brought into the spolight the media's growing sarcasm towards sports personalities when bad days dawn.

Waspish

O'Gara may not be everyone's idea of a cuddly toy. He can be waspish and, on occasion, seem a mite self-absorbed. Yet his achievements in the game have been extraordinary. He has been at the Irish console for four Triple Crown wins and a Grand Slam, just as he has been the Munster pivot for two European Cup victories.

He is the top points-scorer in Six Nations history and a man who has been at the epicentre of just about every positive Irish rugby story of the past decade. That decade has been embroidered by the kind of success that, frankly, goes against Myers' assertion of a group "comfortable with failure". So if O'Gara feels antagonised by commentary designed -- it would seem -- to belittle him, does that make him precious? Or merely human?

Ruby Walsh is, arguably, the greatest jump jockey of all time and a man from whom extraordinary deeds are routinely anticipated. Yet he is familiar too with the rising sourness of the Irish psyche. The instinct to put down.

The weekend before last, he rode a total of seven winners. Yet, he recalls: "I got off the seventh one in the winner's enclosure in Navan and all one fella could do was roar in over the railing about the two I got beaten on, giving out s***e about them."

And Ruby has watched the brewing frenzy to denigrate Tony McCoy since Denman's mishap in the Aon Chase at Newbury. McCoy is the most successful jockey in National Hunt history with more than 3,000 winners. He is a good friend of Walsh's too, yet one of his fiercest rivals.

The incident at Newbury triggered a breathtaking media debate on McCoy's ability to ride a horse nicknamed 'The Tank' in the upcoming Gold Cup. Worse, it jump-started an internet frenzy. Suddenly, discussion gave way to gratuitous insult. McCoy found himself likened to "a bull in a china shop" and described, incredibly, on one forum as incapable of presenting a horse properly at a fence.

Ruby, whose bid for a third Gold Cup with Kauto Star on March 19 probably faces its greatest threat from McCoy and Denman, is irked by what seems a soaring desire to salt up commentary with ridicule.

"I've no great problem with someone making a judgement on a player or jockey's performance," he stresses. "But what right has anyone got to judge someone's character? Especially, when they don't even know that person? None.

"I just think it's wrong. It's getting very sarcastic, but has society not gone that way as a whole? Maybe it's jealously to a degree too. People don't realise how hard professional rugby players work. They see it almost as a hobby, a bit of fun. Same with jockeys. They think you just turn up, get on the horse and that's it. But I know Ronan O'Gara and AP McCoy are two workaholics.

"Everyone has an opinion. It's opinions that make the world go around. But nobody has the right to sneer at anybody else in any walk of life."

O'Gara's mistake was to respond to an article he believed to carry such a sneer. His anger needed a quick dip in water, but didn't get it. In the cramped space of his own frustration, he lashed out. No-one shouted "stop".

To be fair, we can all become momentarily disoriented if treated in a disrespectful way. And at a time when his place on the Irish team was clearly under threat, O'Gara would probably have been more susceptible than most to an eruption.

There are those, of course, who will argue that, as a professional, O'Gara is well rewarded for his life in rugby and, thereby, fair game when the criticism begins to fly. He is certainly one of the Irish squad's biggest off-field earners. But the serrated blade of criticism is, now, every bit as cutting for amateurs in this country.

Last year, Kerry footballer Colm 'Gooch' Cooper found himself compelled to publicly explain his consumption of "a few pints" after playing in an All-Ireland qualifier. Cooper, a bank official by profession, is one of Gaelic football's biggest stars and has always carried himself impeccably. There was no suggestion of bad behaviour on the night in question either.

Just the "few pints" had been taken when they shouldn't have been. The media almost combusted with excitement, 'Gooch' becoming front-page news.

Tommy Lyons was the Dublin manager from 2002 to 2004, finding himself exposed to extraordinary media venom towards the end of that period. The venom whirlpooled out of control after Dublin were evicted from the '04 Leinster Championship by Westmeath.

Coming off the field, Lyons was famously photographed walking a gauntlet of hate as he entered the tunnel. Lyons is in little doubt that the media coverage "certainly built momentum" towards that distasteful end. Yet he believes silence to be the only way out when coming under fire.

"I was staggered that Ronan O'Gara would react in any way to a newspaper article that anyone would write, be it a rugby writer or not," says Lyons. "You can't stop negative journalism. I just think this is a reflection of society. You only have to look at what's happened as a result of our economic collapse.

"You look at all these people who were very wealthy two years ago and are now broke and the way there's a media storm to bury them. Yet, these are the same people who were generating the money that everybody thrived on, including the media.

"It is an Irish psyche. We've always liked to knock the man who is doing well. We over-praise when we win and over-criticise when we lose."

The internet has certainly become a facilitator of vicious derision dressed up as commentary. Faceless heroes abound.

Satire in a newspaper is one thing (and Myers undoubtedly has a genius touch) but, at least, it must be delivered within legal boundaries. Some of the bile O'Gara, particularly, has been subjected to on various message boards has been utterly reprehensible.

Quite why he attracts such strident opinion is difficult to fathom.

Ken Doherty, world snooker champion in '97, expresses sympathy for the Corkman. Doherty has, largely, been the recipient of benign media coverage, yet remembers feeling incensed by one particular article that he interpreted as open ridicule. That said, he too believes that -- in responding to Myers -- O'Gara was essentially shouting from behind a closed window.

"I'm surprised that O'Gara would let it get to him to the extent that he felt he had to write a letter to the editor," says Doherty. "It's true the media seem to have a free licence now and the more outlandish they are, the more prominence they get -- which I think is wrong.

"But every journalist is entitled to their opinion and nobody is beyond reproach. I mean, I like people who are outspoken. One of my best friends is Eamon Dunphy and I happen to disagree with a hell of a lot of what he says.

Stones

"The reality is we play sport and people write about sport. If someone wants to throw stones at you, even for all the wrong reasons, so be it. Professional sports people are, by and large, their own biggest critics. I don't think O'Gara has ever been the type to make excuses for a bad day or to try and cover anything up. Quite the contrary.

"But, sometimes, the criticism gets taken to another level. I don't like the sarcasm and the scapegoating. Ronan O'Gara is a hero, one of the greatest players to play for Ireland. If nothing else, I'd say he's at least entitled to our respect."

The issue here, maybe, is whether or not he is being afforded that. How you regard O'Gara as an out-half is irrelevant. Likewise, how you think he played in Stade de France. But tackling like Kate Moss? Comfortable with failure? Not wanting to win? After 95 caps and a career of unprecedented achievement?

A letter, in the circumstances, seems a remarkably peaceable response.

Irish Independent

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