John Kelly: Peerless O'Gara can make the difference yet again
Published 26/04/2013 | 17:00
Ronan O'Gara will make his 110th European Cup appearance tomorrow. Undoubtedly, he will also add to his record points total of 1,360.
In 2010 he was selected as the best player of the competition's 15-year history. It was a fitting tribute to a man who has done more for the Heineken Cup than any other player.
Nobody comes close to his incredible record-breaking run in this tournament, and yet he keeps going, still hungry for the challenge.
In the week building up to the Harlequins quarter-final, O'Gara was scheduled for media duty after the Cork pitch session.
It was also the week that Declan Kidney's reign as Irish coach finished. Ronan sat in front of the cameras for a maximum of 10 minutes. One or two questions were met with brisk, honest answers and then he was gone. The following day O'Gara's name was splashed across the front pages. His message to Kidney was, 'that's rugby'.
He also proclaimed his desire to become Munster's next coach. Headline writers have an easy day when O'Gara is on media duty.
It isn't the first time that O'Gara has hit the headlines in advance of a big European Cup tie. In 2006, Munster faced the tough prospect of going to Welford Road to face Leicester in a first-round pool collision.
We were going there as champions and the English Premiership side didn't need any additional motivation. O'Gara launched into a tirade about how some English players believed that they were "better than they actually were in reality".
He was only saying something that everybody in his squad felt. English players, backed by the partisan Sky Sports punditry from Stuart Barnes, were constantly bemoaning the fact that they were struggling in Europe because of the intense physicality of the Premiership. O'Gara rightly rubbished these claims, saying that Munster players were "simply better" than those playing in England.
The difference between O'Gara and the rest of his squad was that he was the only one who would say such a thing publicly.
In fact, when he arrived in the dressing-room the following day, the rest of us turned to him and said: "Thanks a million, Rog, no pressure".
He just laughed it off and when the game came down to a penalty kick from the halfway line, O'Gara showed nerves of steel by slotting it over the bar. He backed up his trash talk.
O'Gara's opinion on English players and clubs is still relevant today. At the beginning of this season, the English teams invented a new excuse for their lack of success in Europe's premier competition. Apparently, now it's too hard for them to qualify. They have to worry about relegation.
The Premiership clubs want a higher percentage representation of teams in the competition, which would coincidentally lead to a greater share of the revenues. They even signed a separate television deal with BT Vision and threatened to head off and form a new competition with the French.
I'd guess O'Gara was infuriated by their arrogance. It was the inflated equivalent of the spoilt child taking his ball home and not allowing anyone else to play because he's not winning.
Tomorrow, O'Gara faces far more threatening opposition than anything the Premiership could offer. Clermont Auvergne are a European powerhouse.
They have been unlucky in European competition and have suffered at the hands of both Munster and Leinster since 2008, with losses to Irish provinces each season ultimately costing them their shot at the title.
This season it is clearly Clermont's ultimate goal to succeed in Europe. They have a glittering array of stars from which to select a starting XV. However, the French side have never invested in a world-class out-half.
If Clermont Auvergne had attracted a player of O'Gara's quality, they would surely have captured more silverware in recent years.
Munster have achieved beyond their means in Europe. They have been reliant on their out-half to drag them over the line to victory on so many occasions.
From Saracens in 2000 to Northampton in 2011, O'Gara has made the difference. The sun is about to set on O'Gara's career and his influence on matches is probably not as evident this season.
The quarter-final win was more about a complete team performance than O'Gara's boot. However, O'Gara knows how to win big matches, especially in front of hostile French supporters. If Munster are to win in France tomorrow, the veteran out-half will have to produce a vintage display. Once more he might have to make the difference.