'I agree that it's Jonny's time – but I don't accept it'
Published 19/11/2012 | 05:00
UNDERSTANDING is easy, acceptance is absolutely impossible, which is why Ronan O'Gara is still very much an integral part of the Irish set-up.
Those charged with piloting the fortunes of the Ireland rugby team have decreed that it's Jonathan Sexton's time to lead Ireland from the out-half berth. With a World Cup just over two years away, the pragmatist in O'Gara understands the logic.
That said, the competitive instinct that has driven the Munsterman to 125 international caps, 1,075 international points, 107 European appearances (106 of them as a starter), 1,303 Heineken Cup points, four Triple Crowns, RBS Six Nations Golden Boot as top points scorer in 2005, '06, '07 and '09, two Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam, will never accept that reality is beyond challenge.
O'Gara is understandably proud of his remarkable personal record, confident that he has achieved so much that his rugby legacy will always be substantial in any comparison. He also shows with his comments that he is the ultimate team player.
"I understand it, absolutely," said O'Gara. "Since the World Cup there's been a decision that it's Jonny's time. And I agree with that. But I don't accept it. If you accept that situation you're no good to the squad.
"Whether it's five minutes or 50 minutes off the bench, or 80 minutes from the start, you have to try and make a positive impact and that's something I'm determined to do whenever I'm called on. I think I've proved over the years that I am still able to do a job for the team."
The hunger to succeed that saw him win his first cap against Scotland back in 2000 still drives him with every bit as much intensity as he approaches his 126th. "You'll be retired long enough. I see a lot of team-mates and friends of mine who have been forced out of the game because of injury and I know how lucky I am. And when you get support from the people who pay to go into the games you know that you're doing something right," he said.
"I derive huge confidence from what I've achieved and I truly believe that I can achieve more. I'm certainly not putting the lid on the tin, there's more to come."
THAT O'Gara remains as relevant as ever in an ever-evolving game is further testament to his warrior nature. It is, according to the man himself, thanks to the upbringing he received back when the AIL was truly significant.
O'Gara cut his teeth playing for UCC for his fresher year before taking the road less travelled by students by joining Cork Constitution in his second year.
It was a hugely contentious decision, one amplified by the fact that his father Fergal – recently retired – was lecturing at the university. Back then the All-Ireland League was awash with money as clubs desperately tried to hang on to their players in the face of professional offers from England.
Cork Con lost Paul Burke to Bristol and turned to the young College out-half to lead their charge. They weren't disappointed. "The AIL was a fantastic breeding ground back then. It was basically cup rugby every weekend in front of 10,000 or 12,000 people at a ferocious intensity, which is what Test rugby is all about.
"For me playing against the great teams of Garryowen, Shannon and Young Munster was a learning ground that I think is lost to the new generation. I wouldn't have had my career or be the player I am if I hadn't gone through those games where I was getting the s**t kicked out of me in Limerick on a weekly basis.
"Sometimes if you take the right messages from a beating you can learn more. And unfortunately I don't think people understand just how great an education those cup games were back then, which is a loss to the game."
IRELAND HAVE TO SET THE PACE
THE lessons learned from the South African loss must be applied this weekend if Ireland are to beat what is a hugely impressive Argentina side.
Whereas before the Pumas were all brawn with very little brain behind the pack, they are now a far more rounded side and one O'Gara feels will test Ireland in every facet, especially after their experienced in the Rugby Championship.
"Just the very fact that they were playing Test rugby against some of the best teams in the world three weeks ago will have brought them on a ton," said O'Gara, "and they were very impressive during the championship.
"What we have to do is set the pace in this game. With every game of rugby there is one team who sets the pace and one who is chasing.
"We set the pace for 40 minutes against South Africa. For the first half I thought we were really good, played with great intensity and just did the simple things well and were pretty much in control of the game.
"But in the second half we stopped doing what had been yielding dividends and South Africa came back at us and strangled us a little. From everyone's point of view it's hugely disappointing to lose when you were 12-3 up at home. It's very rare in the last 10 years that we have squandered those leads.
"It's hard to give a reason for what happened. Everyone will be coming at it from a different angle. Absolutely we will talk about it because it's important to air what you're feeling, but that will be done in-camp."
There is little time to apply any of the fixes that are deemed necessary with the Argentina game just five days away, but looking ahead O'Gara believes that the onus is on the younger generation to take ownership of the team.
"There are a lot of new faces coming through now and there's not that familiarity there was a couple of years ago because it's a hugely changed team. That's the natural evolution of the thing and it takes time for the bond between players to grow. But they have to grasp this opportunity now or risk seeing it pass them by."
IT'S ABOUT WINNING
O'GARA is, of course, at a different stage of his career than most of his Ireland team-mates, but there is absolutely no hint of his enthusiasm waning. He is as competitive and driven as ever and is still demanding more from himself.
"You could ask the likes of Henry Shefflin why he keeps going with nine All-Ireland medals already in his locker. When you get on to a good thing you actually work harder to try and put distance between you and your opposition.
"It's about winning big games. That's what good seasons come down to, winning big games, and I still want to win the big games."
His contract with Ireland (and Munster) is up at the end of the season. It's not something that has ever really cost O'Gara a thought. His relationship with his employers has always been straightforward and up front.
It's pretty much a given that he will be offered a new central contract. For sure, he plans on playing next season and insists he hasn't actually thought about what will happen around the annual contract negotiations.
"Ireland decide what kind of contract you're offered," he said. "We'll just wait and see. It's seven months away. I haven't even thought beyond Christmas to be honest. I would hope to be playing next season."
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