Wednesday 23 April 2014

'Irish hero' O'Gara humbled by turn-out as he takes centre-stage at testimonial dinner

"When you're gone, you're gone.  That is how you accept that," he said. "It is a chance for some other young fella to live their dream. I lived it for 12 years."

Date: 20/02/14
Photographer: Will Oliver
Pictured: Ronan O'Gara and his wife Jessica 
Caption: Guests attend a Ronan O'Gara Testimonial Dinner in The Park Lane Hilton in Central London.
Pictured: Ronan O'Gara and his wife Jessica Photographer: Will Oliver

Ronan O’Gara took centre stage on English soil for one final time last night - but this time off the pitch.

Hundreds of admirers, fans, former players, players and friends turned out at the Hilton hotel on Park Lane in London for the second testimonial dinner of the former fly-half, who was capped 128 times for Ireland over 13 years.

The father of four declared the experience "very flattering" and "very humbling" as admirers from the worlds of sports, finance, entertainment and politics gathered at the black tie event.

"I am just very humbled by the whole thing," he said. "It is a massive occasion and an awful lot of organising went into it, it's great that my team mates are here, obviously a lot are retired and it is great that they can have a night out because I am in Paris.  Tonight is a one off."

Amongst those at the event were former Irish internationals Donncha O'Callaghan, Peter Stringer, Donal Lenihan and Peter Clohessy.

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Pictured: Mick McCarthy and his wife Fiona McCarthy Photographer: Will Oliver

The 36-year-old retired player, who was both Munster’s most capped player and top points scorer of all time, has been coaching with Racing Metro in France since his retirement last year following one of the most successful rugby careers in history.

During his time on the pitch, he captained Munster, Ireland and the Lions and became the third most capped player and fourth highest points scorer in international rugby.

Peter Stringer, who had his first cap with Ireland on the same day against Scotland in February 2000, said O'Gara had been equally as influential in Irish rugby as Brian O'Driscoll but in a different regard, paying tribute to his kicking professionalism.

Michael Flatley, there with his wife Niamh, described O'Gara as an "Irish hero".

"I shudder to think of the amount of times I have watched him line up those kicks thinking 'he will never get this one' and he never disappointed," he said.

Just under 900 tickets were sold for the event with prices ranging from £3,000 to £5,000 for a table of 10.

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Ronan O'Gara talks to Michael Flatley and his wife Niamh O'Brien Photographer: Will Oliver

Developer Michael O'Flynn, who organised both testimonial dinners, said there was a waiting list for the events after tickets sold out.

"The support he has is quite incredible. He has given a lot to Irish rugby and to Ireland.  He is a great ambassador," he said.  "We did two [testimonials] because there is a huge demand."

O'Gara and his wife Jessica, there beside him last night, are expecting their fifth child in April to add to their family which includes five-year-old twins Rua and Molly, three-year-old JJ and baby Zac.

The black-tie dinner could not have come at a more appropriate time as anticipation builds towards Ireland’s vital clash against England in the Six Nations on Saturday.

O'Gara himself said he thought Ireland have a "great chance" but did not feel any different coming to London during the build-up to the match.

"When you're gone, you're gone.  That is how you accept that," he said. "It is a chance for some other young fella to live their dream. I lived it for 12 years."

The evening’s events were overseen by X-Factor host Dermot O’Leary while the the Ireland Fund of Great Britain were the recipient of the charity funds.

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Pictured: Ronan O'Gara and his wife Jessica Photographer: Will Oliver

Also there from the sports world was former Irish soccer manager Mick McCarthy and player Kevin Moran, jockey Ruby Walsh and former England rugby captain Will Carling and former Kerry GAA star Paul Galvin. Environment minister Phil Hogan and former minister Conor Lenihan were there as well as developer Owen O'Callaghan and former attorney general Peter Sutherland.

Amongst the items up for auction was a guitar signed by the four members of U2, a signed tour bag from Rory McIlroy’s win at the Australian Open and numerous signed jerseys.  It was expected that the auction and door receipts would raise hundreds of thousands of pounds.

After dinner, the guests were entertained by Martin Bayfield, a former English rugby international turned public speaker and a live performance from a troupe of Michael Flatley's dancers.  The dinner opened to videos of O'Gara's career highlights to the tune of 'The Impossible Dream'.

The crowd featured a large number of people from the world of business and finance with John Magnier, JP McManus and Denis O'Brien all buying up tables.

O’Gara finished his career as Ireland’s all-time leading points scorer with 1,083, and as Munster’s greatest ever points scorer with a haul of 2,625 points in the red jersey.  Some 900 people turned up to a testimonial dinner for him in Cork last October.

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