I never had any doubts, says O'Gara
RONAN O'GARA has been operating at the summit of professional sport for a decade but it is safe to say the last 12 months have been the most turbulent of his illustrious career.
The year began brilliantly as Munster's convincing Heineken Cup pool form proved the perfect lead-in to Ireland's first Grand Slam in 61 years, with O'Gara playing his customary pivotal role for both teams.
But then came the shock European semi-final hammering by Leinster, followed by a Lions tour that should have seen an in-form O'Gara installed as first-choice out-half but instead left him unfairly vilified for his concussion-induced role in the second Test and series-deciding defeat.
When Munster struggled for consistency at the start of the new season, and O'Gara went through an alarming dip in place-kicking form, the prognosticators of doom were out in force, ready to hail Leinster's Jonathan Sexton as the new king on the block.
This ignored the fact that O'Gara's general play was as accomplished as ever -- as he showed in the opening November international against Australia, when his goal-kicking form also returned.
However, Sexton's selection for the South Africa Test and subsequent man-of-the-match performance brought the changing-of-the-guard brigade out in force again when, in fact, what Ireland coach Declan Kidney was looking for, and discovered, was two top-class options with an eye on the 2011 World Cup.
However, if November was a trial, December was a triumph for O'Gara as the 32-year-old Corkman proved the perfect string-puller when the Munster pack beat up French champions Perpignan on their home, much feted, Stade Aime Giral patch.
So, what does 2010 hold for O'Gara? Cork was shrouded in 'Hound of the Baskervilles' fog yesterday, but the way ahead seemed clear for the Munster and Ireland No 10 as he prepares for the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup pool stages.
"I feel fresh. I feel good. I'm very much looking forward to the next two weeks; I can't wait for them," he said.
"Obviously, I was disappointed to be left out against South Africa but that's another disappointment -- I've had plenty of them. You have to come back stronger and better, and do your talking on the pitch and we'll see what happens come Six Nations time.
"But at the minute I'm in a happy camp and enjoying my rugby. We're in a good position in the group. In campaigns with Munster down through the years, it hasn't been as clear-cut as it is in this situation. We've a lot to play for and it's on our terms.
"I was just so pleased with the way the forwards performed against Perpignan. And that further instilled the hunger, desire, belief and competitiveness in me for a big few months."
O'Gara, the leading Ireland and Heineken Cup points-scorer, while acknowledging his radar was off in the early section of the season, is confident place-kicking blips will not be an issue when the pressure is on.
"I'm constantly changing, constantly looking for improvements, constantly trying to be the best and I'm constantly trying to make it as simple a possible," he added.
"How I broke down my season was, the first three games I viewed as warm-up games. They were Celtic League games. Maybe I didn't give them the respect they deserved -- but they were my first three games. I wasn't putting myself under any pressure. I'd had 12 weeks off and didn't do much kicking. I felt I didn't need to, that's my theory. I don't know how many missed kicks there were, but it was quite a few.
"You're talking about a five-game period and the most pleasing thing for me was that when the pressure was on against Northampton away I kicked very well. I didn't kick very well against Treviso but there wasn't any great pressure in that game. But there was in the two Perpignan games and I kicked 100pc for Ireland, so that was always the most pleasing thing."
Did the doubts ever creep in?
"No, I have huge self-belief," he said. "I have always had. I actually enjoy being where I was in my own head. I never had any doubts for any minute. I broke it down step-by-step and it took me a few games to do that.
"I wanted to do that quicker but it didn't happen like that because I'm not a robot. That's why it took me a little bit longer. I think if you ask my team-mates, I was in good form. People might not believe that but I was.
"I've been playing well at times this season but I haven't been kicking well. People who know their rugby generally separate the two of them, but the perception and person on the street believes that you're not playing well if you're not kicking well.
"It's very important to me to have the whole package as well and that's been the reason why I have been living the dream for 10 years."
Living the dream in professional rugby brings you into constant heavy-duty contact and O'Gara, largely untroubled by serious injury over the last 10 years, is conscious of the need to constantly monitor his well-being.
"I was struggling with my knee in the Connacht game (on St Stephen's Day). I played maybe five weeks in a row. I had a choice. I just wanted to play in that game to keep momentum going," he said.
"I just played 40 minutes and was happy then. I just needed to rehab my knee then for the last 10 days and rest up a bit and be fresh for this weekend."
O'Gara is clearly in a good place at present and, encouragingly for Munster and Ireland looking down the road, is not in any way concerned by the ageing process, referencing a rather well-known 36-year-old Welshman as proof.
"Old age? Sure look at Ryan Giggs ... "