Not giving in without a fight
Having to prove his worth in the Pro12 is not what Ronan O'Gara deserves, saysn
On a foul night in the first week of October 1998, we drove through a prolonged truckwash to get to Toomevara, Co Tipperary to meet a young contender by the name of Barry Everitt. If you have come late to rugby's party then you may not remember Barry, but professional rugby in Ireland hadn't even reached base camp, and here was a fella who thought he could climb.
At the time, Eric Elwood and David Humphreys were the contenders for the Ireland No 10 shirt. Munster had a few others who were in the queue, and their place there was a matter of opinion. Killian Keane was the most mature, and robust, but the least likely to overtake the other pair. Then there were two kids: a skinny 21-year-old out of Cork Con named Ronan O'Gara, and Garryowen's Everitt, a year older almost to the day, and no heavyweight either.
On the basis that Everitt had taken advantage of an injury to O'Gara – Keane was moved to the centre – and was looking confident in the way he bossed players about, we thought it a good time to talk to him. He had managed to play for Ireland 'A' before he played for his province. Ireland were scheduled to play 10 Tests that season, and when we suggested he would get in at some point, he looked surprised. Then agreed to put a few bob on it. And set the ante at £50, old money – a significant sum we thought.
Within a few days of the article appearing, Ronan O'Gara made contact. "When are you going to do an article on me?" he asked.
That was the start. Well, to be honest, the first sighting had been a couple of years earlier when he was manoeuvring UCC into an All-Ireland under 20 final. He had looked class that day. A star had been born. Now he was concerned about being outshone.
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In the 31st minute of the England Test last Sunday, Jonny Sexton pulled up thinking that he had just been picked off by a sniper in the east stand. In the seconds it took to establish that this was no flesh wound, the nature of the contest changed.
His replacement, Ronan O'Gara, had not played since the Pro12 game against Edinburgh four weeks earlier – a game incidentally in which he would be cited for kicking Sean Cox, who had bodychecked him. From four weeks with no rugby, to be dropped into a savage contest like this, was to be pushed out from a great height without a parachute.
O'Gara's involvement with Ireland had been peripheral since the 2011 World Cup. This maddened him for he thought it was not based on form. He had started that tournament behind Sexton, but then forced a change in the pecking order when the Leinster man developed worrying problems with his goal kicking. So O'Gara got the nod for the final pool game, against Italy. Ireland were clinical that night; Italy were porous; O'Gara retained his place for the quarter-final against Wales in Wellington.
When the 2012 Six Nations rolled around four months later the balance had shifted again in Declan Kidney's head. Sexton's problems off the tee had been fixed. In the Heineken Cup in Montpellier, he had nailed an injury-time penalty to get Leinster a draw, and had looked like he enjoyed every second of the challenge. From there Leinster took off, and Sexton was leading the charge.
During the same period O'Gara was central to Munster edging past Scarlets, in the back-to-back European games, but the point was not how important he was to Munster, rather that Sexton had re-established the advantage recognised by Kidney the previous season. Physically, Sexton was in a different league, and he had a will to win that was infectious.
In the 10 Tests after the World Cup the only fly in Sexton's ointment was that he was being shifted across the field late in games to accommodate O'Gara coming off the bench. In the opening game of the Six Nations, against Wales, Kidney had sent O'Gara on for Sexton to see if he could rescue the game. In the next four Tests Sexton would play until the final whistle and Gordon D'Arcy was called ashore.
For O'Gara, the cycle of a few minutes here and a few minutes there was painful. He felt peripheral to the operation and would escape back home from the team hotel at the first opportunity. When the time came to do his party piece he would run on and spit on his hands, rub them together looking all purposeful, and then you'd check the clock and see there were maybe eight minutes left.
He was spared that altogether in Cardiff two weeks ago. It was the first time since the World Cup that O'Gara had been left as a spectator from start to finish. The circumstances were instructive: Sexton had been leading the race to obliterate Wales by the hour mark; then he was first in the defensive line to man the barricades when the comeback started. Why would you drop O'Gara into a contest where he had no relevance?
It would have been the same last weekend but for Sexton's pinged hamstring. At the time some people reckoned that the circumstances were ideal for calling on O'Gara: a tight game on a horrible day when clever punting and nerveless goal kicking would be priceless.
The English didn't see it that way. They watched O'Gara take off his tracksuit in the way a pride of lions pick up on a wildebeest separated from the herd. On his staggering achievement of playing 127 times for Ireland, it surely was his most uncomfortable experience in that 14-year campaign.
O'Gara's early days in green were marked by the upset of being hauled ashore for Humphreys to come on and finish the job. He had the mental toughness to ride it out, to reach a point where his selection was unquestioned and his contribution immense. Even now, with his athletic faculties fading, his footballing skill is extraordinary.
There was no room for it against England, though. Watching it unfold you thought of the Gary Larson cartoon where one deer looks at the bullseye target on the chest of his pal and remarks: "Bummer of a birthmark, Hal."
The situation was compounded by the disintegrating game plan. Much has been made of England's lack of ambition, and how poor old Ireland played all the rugby and no reward for it. On a day like that your ambition is to survive the enemy and the conditions. England were excellent in manipulating the situation to suit themselves.
"On top of that Ronan got one or two balls that he probably shouldn't have got," Kidney conceded last week, when asked about O'Gara's predicament against England. "So he would have been set up a bit on that and that's one of the areas that we'll look to rectify too."
The pass from D'Arcy off a ruck, midway through the second half, stands out as a fast track to a trolley in A&E. The final nail in the coffin, however, was in the endgame when England choreographed a little routine which would leave O'Gara even further detached from the herd.
Unlike Ireland they were able to shuffle through a few phases without dropping the ball, long enough to force the Ireland outhalf into a defensive position on his own out wide. Up went the bomb; it blew up in O'Gara's hands; then he was penalised for not releasing. It was sad to witness.
Of course he shouldn't have been there. If Paddy Jackson had been as far down the track as Kidney hoped when he brought him closer into the fold in November then it would have been the Ulsterman in that position. Having let Jackson loose against Fiji – another move in the drive to freshen the face of the Ireland squad – Kidney needed him to kick on in December and make a compelling case to turf out O'Gara altogether.
You think Kidney likes having O'Gara around? Their relationship has long since soured, and it is to the coach's credit that he does such a good job of presenting a happy front.
Outhalves are temperamental at the best of times. At the worst, when their powers are fading and they are raging against the decline, they can be plain unreasonable. The last thing Ronan O'Gara will accept is that he is finished, for as soon as he accepts that he has nothing left to offer.
Unfortunately for Kidney, what Jackson has to offer is not what he needs. The 21-year-old stumbled through big derby games and Heineken Cup fixtures post-November when he needed to be making a case. He was hampered by an ankle injury. He was left on the bench for Castres, the final pool game, and then looked more relaxed when he came on. At last he was recognising better what was in front of him. He was less uptight than he had been when he came back from the Ireland camp.
Is that enough to make Jackson a Test player? He passed his way through the Zebre game on Friday night like a young man unburdened by either injury or worry, but we'll see.
The other men in Kidney's head are Ian Keatley and Ian Madigan. Keatley has the perfect profile now to step up to international rugby. It's hard to attach much weight to the two caps he picked up in North America in 2009 when the Irish Lions were away, but between Connacht and Munster he has at least put a lot of miles on the clock.
His problem is O'Gara. When Keatley made the decision to go south two summers ago, he had hoped to dislodge the legend by this stage.
Madigan's problems are twofold: Jonny Sexton and Declan Kidney. The first will be going away soon enough, and perhaps the second too, but for the meantime for some reason the coach is not a fan. This is hard to fathom, for of the young contenders Madigan seems to have the best temperament, and a good all-round game enhanced by a great nose for the tryline.
Having brought Jackson into the camp ahead of the others last week, it would seem himself and O'Gara will be the outhalf pairing in the squad for Edinburgh next weekend. Kidney maintains that who starts is a live issue, and O'Gara's form last night in Llanelli was central to that decision.
If so then the coach is in trouble, for while he was brave – soldiering on having had his head opened – O'Gara was largely ineffective in what were more benign circumstances than last Sunday.
Imagine when you need an extension on your house to accommodate all the caps and trophies you've won, being sent to a hollow spot like Parc y Scarlets to prove yourself.
At the end last night his opposite number was having a go at him – simply because he could. This wasn't what Ronan O'Gara had in mind in 1998 when he was looking for some of the limelight.