Tuesday 25 October 2016

Alan Quinlan: The Ronan O'Gara I know - selfless, single-minded, an unofficial psychologist and able to f**k someone out of it

Munster return will be an emotional nightmare for him – but he will still want to beat them

Alan Quinlan

Published 15/10/2016 | 13:00

Ronan O’Gara alongside Alan Quinlan after a 2009 league game against Neath-Swansea Ospreys at Thomond Park. Photo: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile
Ronan O’Gara alongside Alan Quinlan after a 2009 league game against Neath-Swansea Ospreys at Thomond Park. Photo: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile

I am lying on my bed with just dark thoughts for company.

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Thirty-four years old and riddled with doubt.

'Am I up to this?'

'Do I belong at this level?'

'What if …'

The room door opens and the guy who walks in is a friend as well as a team-mate, an unofficial psychologist as well as an out-half, a selfless team player as well as someone whose single-mindedness took him to three Lions tours, a Grand Slam and over 100 Irish caps.

Former Munster player Peter Stringer. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Former Munster player Peter Stringer. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

He looks at me and knows.

"You OK?" he asks.

"Not really."

He leaves me to it, making it clear he's prepared to listen but also that he's ready to talk.

That was one of the things Ronan O'Gara did best.

If we lost a game on a Saturday, he'd never be afraid to tackle the issue head on. If a fella needed to be f***ed out of it, he'd give it to them straight.

He could speak with clarity and could speak like a coach, dissecting the issues, explaining how things had gone wrong, pointing the finger outwards and then pointing it back to himself.

That was another of O'Gara's great traits. He could be tetchy but he could also be bluntly honest even if he was surrounded by men who were so much physically bigger.

The first time I saw him, I remember him and Peter Stringer walking into a training session and thought they were the mascots who had won a competition to train with the Munster first XV. They looked like a pair of 16-year-olds.

They didn't act that way, though. From a very early age, ROG was well able to be vocal. Playing as an out-half, he had to be. The guy possessed this seriously impressive, inner belief as well as a brilliant desire to get better and stronger. The day he missed the kicks which could have won us the Heineken Cup against Northampton? He didn't mope or sulk.

Instead, he got his head down and learned from the experience.

The days he missed tackles or made mistakes in matches? He'd stand up in the dressing room afterwards and say, 'Look, I f***ed up. It was not good enough and I will do what I can to get better.'


And he did.

That was what made him such a successful player, that willingness to learn, that knowledge that in a game as physical as rugby, there had to be a certain amount of emotion, a high work-rate and a strong mentality.

Time after time, he would talk about that responsibility and would get guys to believe in themselves - guys like me.

And that was where we were on this Friday evening in 2008, the night before the Heineken Cup final.

Two years earlier, Munster had finally got across the line and won a competition we had pushed hard in for seven seasons. Now we were back in another final but for me there was a difference.

This time I was starting. In 2006, I was a sub, coming back from injury.

And the extra responsibility freaked me out a bit. That and Thierry Dusautoir.

"Toulouse have this aura," I said. "Dusautoir is an unbelievable player."

ROG listened.

"Fair enough," he said, "he is good but so are you, you can dominate at this level and can dominate this match. This is where you can excel. We all have little doubts, pre-match nerves. I am nervous too."

But Rog's nervousness was a little different to mine. He never worried about whether we were good enough.

He fretted over whether the same drive and hunger was in the team.

In the semi-final against Saracens at Coventry that year, we had escaped with murder. We all knew it. We nearly lost it late on which would have been the biggest underachievement ever and afterwards Declan Kidney gave it to us. And then ROG spoke up.

"If we don't get our act together from Monday morning onwards, we won't win the final," he said.

There and then I knew he would be a coach.


Because of how clear his instructions were. Sometimes he'd point out the most obvious things that were staring us in the face. "We just need to defend better, just need to catch the f***ing ball," he'd say. "Cut out the silly mistakes."

It sounds simple but by stating facts and speaking with a purpose, he got his point across. Often it would be in low-key games, league matches away to Edinburgh or the Dragons, when he'd stand among us and say, 'These are the games they expect us to drop our standards in, to not be up for it. So let's prove people wrong'.

And if we won, but it was not good enough, he'd say so. I remember one meeting in UL, around about 2005, when he tore strips off everyone about our attitude, the way we trained, the way we were bullied in our previous game, the way we had to react to teams raising their standards against us.

It was a risky business because when you criticise the group, your own performances have to be fairly much on the money. His tended to be. So that earned him respect that and his ability to motivate.

"I know you can do it," he said to me in the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel, the night before that 2008 Heineken Cup final. "Why allow some Toulouse guy have a field day against you? You can be man of the match."

It was why I loved rooming with him.

If I was nervous, he'd gee me up. If I was bored, we'd have a laugh. He could be a messer when he wanted to be and yet there was often a moodiness about him on the training field, because if Ronan felt he needed to pick a fight, then he would grind his teeth and take you on.


And then he had the maturity to come back to you, put the hand out and say, 'Let's get going again'. So he was similar to Paul O'Connell, Anthony Foley, Jim Williams and Mick Galwey in that respect. He was right up there with those guys as regards being a leader.

"You can have a game-plan, structures, tactics, but if you don't turn up with the right attitude then you are in trouble," he used to say. "Every game has to mean something."

And tomorrow's game between Munster and Racing will mean so much to him. He may have been born and bred in Munster but the competitor in him will want to win.

And that is a problem for Munster. He won't want to lose, even if he had a choice, he probably wouldn't want to be facing his former club.

Yet this is where he is at. He went to France to serve a coaching apprenticeship and after three full seasons, he has been handed a new contract and is clearly highly thought of.

From what I hear - the players love him and know that some day he will be a head coach - potentially in Munster. That is what he'll dream of.

But tomorrow? He will be out to beat them. Does it matter that some of his greatest days were here? Not a bit. Not to this immensely likeable but contrary fecker.

He loves to win too much.

Irish Independent

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