O’Gara goes from Stoop to conqueror as he prepares for his 100th Heineken Cup appearance
MUNSTER'S new coach Declan Kidney raised more than a few eyebrows in 1997 when he named his team to face Harlequins in London for the opening round of the Heineken Cup.
Travelling to the Stoop was a daunting assignment by any standards, as Quins had a powerful side featuring world-renowned performers such as Will Carling, Keith Wood, Jason Leonard and Laurent Cabannes, but that did not stop Kidney giving a clutch of youngsters their European debuts.
For Greg Tuohy, an athletic No 8 from Sunday's Well, it was to be his only taste of Heineken Cup action after a miffed Anthony Foley was restored to the back-row the following week against Cardiff.
Tuohy's clubmates Conor Burke and John Lacey picked up a few more Heineken Cup caps each that season but were out of the frame by the time Munster made their breakthrough in 1999/2000.
Other debutants, such as winger Anthony Horgan and flanker Alan Quinlan, would go on to experience long and productive Heineken Cup careers -- and then there was Ronan O'Gara.
The 20-year-old had been doing well with his club Cork Constitution and had been part of Eddie O'Sullivan's successful Ireland U-21 side, but this was a different challenge entirely -- as emphasised by O'Gara's direct opponent that afternoon, the canny 30-year-old Frenchman Thierry Lacroix, a veteran of two World Cups.
Munster lost 48-40 but performed bravely with a 'caution to the wind' approach that produced five tries, four from the new wave of Lacey, Burke, Horgan and Quinlan and one from the establishment, in the shape of second-row and captain Mick Galwey. It was a satisfactory debut for O'Gara, who had a couple of shaky moments but performed well overall, knocking over three conversions and three penalties for a personal tally of 15 points.
Fourteen years, and 98 Heineken Cup matches later, O'Gara is poised to make his 100th appearance when Munster take on the Scarlets in Parc y Scarlets next Saturday. When the ERC honoured 15 seasons of competition last year, it was O'Gara who scooped the ultimate accolade of European Player Award for making the greatest individual contribution.
That contribution has included two Heineken Cup winners' medals and 1,221 points, which leaves him comfortably on top of the points table ahead of the Scarlets' Stephen Jones.
However, perhaps the most remarkable statistic from his Heineken Cup career is that those 99 appearances have included 98 starts -- his sole appearance off the bench coming two games after his debut when Killian Keane started at 10.
Since then, O'Gara's status as first choice has never been in question and when Munster have signed out-halves they have had to switch positions to get their game or else accept their back-up roles.
Jason Holland was relocated to first centre, Paul Warwick played full-back, while others such as Paul Burke and Jeremy Manning were there as designated cover.
O'Gara is 34 and at a time in his career when most players find it hard to stave off the claims of younger rivals -- not least the 33-year-old Jones, who has been overtaken for club and country by Rhys Priestland.
However, O'Gara is still centre stage and, arguably, playing better than ever, as his double dose of drop-goal drama in Munster's opening two Heineken Cup matches showed. That Munster are going through a period of transition is no secret and expectations were set at realistic levels heading into this Heineken Cup campaign.
However, with their soon-to-be centurion still calling the plays so authoritatively, you would never rule out further glory. From Stoop to conqueror, O'Gara's 14-year Heineken Cup story is not finished yet.