O'Gara: 'I'm not a rugby player, I'm a Munster rugby player'
RONAN O'GARA has been garnering plenty of attention this week, the main Irish rugby topic ahead of his coronation as a Heineken Cup centurion.
And that is the point: O'Gara is the story that will not go away, as relevant now at 34 as he was in his late 20s, with no indication that he is ready to step into the background. It was assumed to be happening two years ago, when Jonathan Sexton was installed in the Ireland No 10 jersey and the widely held opinion was that it was a natural changing of the guard and that O'Gara would provide experienced back-up until an alternative came along.
It didn't quite pan out that way. Rather than accept his understudy status, O'Gara set about re-establishing himself as No 1 and forced his way back to that status when the pressure was at its most intense at the World Cup.
It is a good position for Ireland coach Declan Kidney. Sexton remains a quality out-half and Ian Madigan is showing signs that he could be elevated into the international mix, but O'Gara is going nowhere soon, stressing that as long he feels his performances justify it, he will carry on.
They certainly are at the moment, and there are powerful motivating factors to spur him onwards -- the pursuit of a first win over the All Blacks next summer and a fourth Lions trip the following year.
His emotional interview after the World Cup win over Australia suggested O'Gara was ready to call it quits, but now he says that was in the heat of the moment.
"I suppose I did retire in a way after the Australia game in the World Cup. They were my feelings at the time -- I hadn't been looking beyond the World Cup," O'Gara said. "I had had two years of more or less being out of the team. I felt I had a point to prove with the World Cup and for those two years that was my focus.
"As difficult as it was to get picked, I felt that I could get picked and that's what I went out to do."
At club level, O'Gara remains the figurehead and headline-grabber for Munster, as his drop-goal dramatics to secure Heineken Cup victories in rounds one and two emphasised.
While there is undoubtedly a sense of personal satisfaction, particularly over the last two years, at these achievements, after a decade and a half with Munster, O'Gara is driven by the need to contribute to the collective also.
"It's funny how things work out. I've been playing a long time but I don't think I've been in that situation back-to-back before," he said.
"It's important (to me) that you can do that for your team-mates when called upon. I won't be called on like that -- or, I may not be! -- again this season but when I was, it was important to be there for them. The rush (I got) out of it is because of the joy of my team-mates."
You feel that Munster's chances of victory against the Scarlets in Parc y Scarlets this afternoon will depend to a significant degree on O'Gara once again.
Nigel Davies' side are buzzing -- their performance in beating Northampton away was the best in the competition this season -- and with a collection of the backs that performed so superbly for Wales at the World Cup, notably against Ireland, they are confident of victory.
Munster, by contrast, are underpowered in the backline without their main strike-force of Doug Howlett, Felix Jones and Keith Earls.
Simon Zebo gets his first Heineken Cup start on the left wing and faces a monumental challenge against George North, as does Munster's new midfield of Lifeimi Mafi and Will Chambers against Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams.
Coach Tony McGahan has gone with the same pack that started the win over Castres, which means he can call on the experience of Marcus Horan, Donncha O'Callaghan and Denis Leamy off the bench, and if BJ Botha does his stuff at scrum-time, Munster have the capacity to win the forward battle against a side they regularly dominate up front at Pro12 level.
The Scarlets backs are the real worry and this suggests a pragmatic tactical approach from the visitors, which places huge responsibility on the half-back pairing of O'Gara and Conor Murray.
The Welsh are not exactly lacking here either. Rhys Priestland has had a fantastic few months, and won his battle with O'Gara in the World Cup quarter-final, while scrum-half Gareth Davies is one of a host of livewire scrum-halves adorning Welsh rugby at present.
If the Munster forwards provide the right ball, you would expect Murray and O'Gara to play the percentages, find territory first and use the three-quarters when the right opportunity presents itself.
Full-back Denis Hurley is no Usain Bolt but he is a strong, hard runner, who comes at decent angles, and Mafi and Chambers need players running off them when they take on ball.
It promises to be a fascinating encounter, and home advantage, as always, will be critical. If the Scarlets play like they did against Northampton they will be hard to contain, but you would back Munster to come away with something.
And you would also back O'Gara to be central to the story again. His commitment to the team is absolute and it is no surprise that the Heineken Cup final defeats of 2000 and '02 still rankle -- he wants another European crown to add his '06 and '08 medals.
"That's (medals won) not enough. We left two, well certainly one, Heineken Cup behind us. Winning is what you play for," said O'Gara this week.
"I'll never leave Munster, not a chance. That's what makes me tick, the red jersey, playing for my club, with my friends. That's what I'm about. That's what defines me.
"I'm not a rugby player, I'm a Munster rugby player. When I do eventually retire that's what I'll be known as -- a one-club man. Being a part of this team very much helps in that regard. I have high standards but Paul O'Connell has maybe even higher standards than me. We drive each other on, all of us."
Verdict: Scarlets by less than seven
SCARLETS -- L Williams; G North, S Williams, J Davies, S Lamont; R Priestland, G Davies; I Thomas, M Rees (capt), R Thomas, S Timani, D Welch, A Shingler, R McCusker, B Morgan. Reps: K Owens, P John, D Manu, K Murphy, J Edwards, T Knoyle, S Jones, V Iongi.
MUNSTER -- D Hurley; J Murphy, W Chambers, L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, B Botha, D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: D Fogarty, M Horan, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, D Leamy, T O'Leary, I Keatley, D Barnes.
REF -- R Poite (France).
Scarlets v Munster,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 3.40