‘I thought I would start the Wales game. I was the incumbent’ -- O'Gara
Published 27/03/2012 | 05:00
VERY few would dispute the contention that 2012 was a strange Six Nations for Ireland.
Two trips to Paris, no Brian O'Driscoll and then no Paul O'Connell, four Tests on successive weekends and a campaign which ended with a whimper amid a shroud of gloom but still had Ireland on top of the tries-scored and line-breaks charts. Weird.
And, in a competition that started the same year he began his international career, it was also the first Six Nations in 13 dating back to 2000 where Ronan O'Gara failed to get on the scoresheet.
So accustomed have we become to O'Gara-commanding headlines with match-winning performances that not seeing him front and centre after at least one of the five outings was a tad disconcerting.
And not just in Ireland. Ahead of the rescheduled match in Paris, one of France's national dailies ran an extensive feature on O'Gara, while the main television station featured a lengthy profile and interview during which the out-half spoke very acceptable French. If other nations had expectations of O'Gara, they were nowhere near the ones he set himself.
Jonathan Sexton's all-round excellence in the thumping win over England at the end of last year's Six Nations seemed to establish the Leinster man as Ireland's first-choice 10, but O'Gara was never going to accept that and won his starting place back during the World Cup.
With majority opinion regularly consigning him to the role of 'experienced back-up' since Sexton broke through in 2009, re-establishing himself at rugby's premier competition was an incredibly significant step for O'Gara and a massive psychological boost.
He backed it up with a series of excellent displays as Munster claimed six victories from six outings in their Heineken Cup pool and, though Sexton had been going well for Leinster also, O'Gara was the form out-half going into the Six Nations. And then he was left out, again.
"It was gut-wrenching," said O'Gara. "I especially thought I would start the Wales game given I was the incumbent and was just after helping Munster to their best ever pool campaign in the Heineken Cup.
"Also, I had bust my ass over the previous 18 months to win the jersey back and then came into camp after a fantastic run of Munster games but wasn't in the team for the Wales game.
"You question everything. But then you have to put it to one side. It's not as if I could have been playing any better at the time. And you have to stay professional.
"To mentally and physically prepare for a game you must feel you have a realistic chance of being picked, otherwise you are no good to a team. That's part of being professional and being a team player. You have to put the disappointment to one side and do what you can for the team.
"I concentrated on making the most of the opportunities I got, be that five minutes, 20 minutes or 25 minutes and I always felt that I was maybe five minutes away from getting the start. I was coming in with 20 minutes to go and doing well. In my mind the time had to come when I would be given the chance to win matches with 80 minutes."
It never happened. Sexton, as all quality players do, took his opportunity well and had a decent championship despite Ireland's various collective difficulties. O'Gara was reduced to accomplished second-half cameos with Sexton switching to inside-centre and, though the partnership looked increasingly assured, Ireland coach Declan Kidney was not prepared to go with it from the off.
So, where does O'Gara stand now? His failure to force his way into the Six Nations starting line-up, the lack of match-stealing moments and the fact he turned 35 during the championship has once again led to assumptions that maybe the time is right for him to step off the international stage.
This would tie in with the concerted call for an injection of youth and vigour into the Ireland squad following Kidney's rigid selection policy but, while there is undeniably a need for some freshness, it would be folly to ignore O'Gara's continued quality -- particularly in light of the challenges ahead.
Three Tests in New Zealand against the world champions represents the most exacting summer schedule of any of the European nations and Ireland need a core of experience running through the squad from Rory Best to O'Connell, David Wallace, O'Gara and O'Driscoll.
Younger players can be accommodated around that established seam, including Leinster's Ian Madigan, who has pulled clear this season as the outstanding out-half talent behind the top two. And, while there were examples during the Six Nations of players being retained more on the basis of familiarity than form, that is not the case with O'Gara, who has been playing as well as he ever has.
Munster have installed a specialised regime under highly regarded fitness expert Bryce Kavanagh that they call the 'Maldini Project', the purpose of which is to extend the careers of their best players, following the example of Italian soccer giants AC Milan.
It certainly seems to be working in O'Gara's case and the out-half has complete belief in his capacity to continue for two to three more years.
"Age is just a number and I will continue to prove that," said O'Gara. "Paolo Maldini was named Europe's best defender by UEFA when he was 39 years of age. Did anyone ever question his ability and commitment? And Paul Scholes is still bossing matters in midfield for Manchester United and he is well into his 30s (37).
"To walk away now would be to do myself a disservice. I'd be cheating myself because I know that I am still good enough to start and win these games."
Self-belief is an essential component in the make-up of any top-level out-half and O'Gara oozes it -- as evidenced by the fact that he does not merely talk about starting games but about winning them.
The presence of Ireland's record caps-holder (121) is essential in New Zealand this summer and, for a man who has won All-Ireland League, Magners League, Heineken Cup, Triple Crown and Grand Slam medals, the goal of a first win over the All Blacks is now a priority.
Then, of course, there is the Lions tour to Australia next year. The Six Nations may not have been a happy experience for Ronan O'Gara but he has immediately set himself new international goals.
"I know that I'm still performing above the standard of international rugby. I'll be retired long enough. Look, I've always been very honest with myself and even with the torment that I have experienced in the last few months, I know that there is more to my international story."