Sunday 4 December 2016

O'Gara walks walk but shuns top 10 talk

Out-half cool, collected and 'far from finished'

Published 28/02/2011 | 05:00

Ronan O'Gara sprints for the line to score Ireland's third try against Scotland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ronan O'Gara sprints for the line to score Ireland's third try against Scotland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

As if his sublimely compiled selection of adroit deeds were not grandly sufficient unto the day thereof, Ronan O'Gara chooses to offer us with the sharpest of words the most cutting contribution to the ongoing vexed debate about Ireland's out-half dilemma.

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He has arrived into the mixed zone to pore over the details of what had often been a riotous display of chaos from his team, fortunately spliced with the type of relaxing antidotes to confusion that only O'Gara, with his seasoned control, can provide.

And, with a clipped delivery that presents a resounding response to those -- including his team-mate Jamie Heaslip -- who would have questioned the decision to even start him yesterday, the 34-year-old stated clearly that his hunger can never abate.

He has been asked to assess where he stands in relation to the competition for the cherished number ten jersey he has now worn some 106 times for Ireland. The answer is a swift riposte, eradicating all doubt that the master deems himself subsidiary to the apprentice.

"I don't know," comes the familiar southern drawl, as he demurs briefly from sucking on a smoothie.

"I'm not too bothered, to be honest. It's up to the coach's opinion. The most important thing for me is Ireland win, and I started, so that's all I'll say."

Amplified

But he has much more to say. Although, in truth, his performance, save a mis-directed restart, amplified voluminously an impression that even a thousand and more of his words could not have supplied.

Not even the coach or captain can avoid the conclusion that were there to be a defining World Cup occasion to be played next week, O'Gara would have to be first choice as pivot.

Perhaps even Heaslip would accept the point, albeit the voluble and enigmatic No 8 was not succumbing to treasonous posturing when declaring his sympathy for Sexton. A charge of cloying loyalty may, however, be flung at Heaslip.

Mercifully for Sexton, his own fate has not yet been cast in stone, notwithstanding O'Gara's stunning statement of intent.

But a time for the coach to make a definitive call is looming nonetheless; should Sexton be offered a redemptive outing next time out, the pressure will become unbearable for him to prove that he can respond to the stunning gauntlet hurled down so ferociously by the veteran.

All of which makes it quite unusual that Kidney chose to haul off the perennial talisman, exposing Sexton quite visibly to a closing 12 minutes of anxiety when his game management paled, significantly, in comparison to the older man.

O'Gara delivered what the captain had called for during the week: a smarter, more controlled game. Not only that, but O'Gara played flat when the circumstances demanded.

And the question hanging upon every Irish trembling lip as they nervously exited Murrayfield last night was: what might have been the result against France had O'Gara started that encounter?

A hypothetical question that will never provide a satisfactorily definitive response, perhaps. What is certain is that O'Gara has significantly raised the stakes in this fascinating duel, however driven he may have been to prove his detractors wrong.

"I was frustrated and I was disappointed probably not to be getting more games," he says. "But in the bigger picture, with the World Cup, I can understand it. But now I think it's all to play for, in terms of starting and adding something.

"I think that I've adapted well to competition, it's brought out the best in me over the years and I think Jonny Sexton has a huge role to play, I think he's a class player and you could see him learning there, he kicked a lovely ball down into the corner to take pressure off.

"That's something I suppose that's a frustrating part, from my point of view, this view that we play different types of games -- but I think essentially the two of us play the exact same game, but people might look upon it to suit their agendas.

"I'm far from finished, I really enjoy playing with the boys. There is no better place than Murrayfield to express yourself. Somebody told me that 'it's not what you've done but what you've yet to do'."

O'Gara has much tarmac to trod yet. Despite his natural acclaim for the younger man, he demonstrated that at this current snapshot in the Irish team's development of a more expansive game, he can operate the controls more adeptly.

What Sexton can deliver in the more comfortable environs of Leinster has thus far failed to translate consistently to the green of Ireland; whether the management are unable to communicate this to him is still unclear.

The certainty of O'Gara's play is starkly in contrast. And he also now freely admits that a gradual relinquishing of the pressure valve that caged him in mental torture at various times throughout his career has proved beneficial.

"Yeah, I just think I struggled for years probably, because it was so important to me. I take my rugby very seriously, and at times you might take that personally.

"I've been lucky, this career has been brilliant to me and I wouldn't change a thing, but at this stage I think I've got to enjoy it, there's not a year or two left. I can't be playing for people all of the time.

"I need to play for myself and for my family and that's probably the way I'm going now. I really enjoyed this morning. I was chilled out and relaxed and I think it's a good positive mindset to bring."

It is yet another in a series of lessons that can be bequeathed to his younger rival and, for all O'Gara's voracious appetite to remain ensconced within Ireland's starting line-up, one senses that he is only now at liberty to defer more graciously to a robust personal challenge than at any other time in his glittering career.

But ultimately it was quite simply his performance that burst through the typically grey Scottish afternoon. "Excuse me for not sounding shocked that he's pulled another world-class performance out," says his stoic captain.

With the coach emphasising that he remains satisfied that Ireland can now operate efficiently with two No 10s operating in tandem, one wonders whether he would have taken such a risk in replacing O'Gara had there been a championship or World Cup quarter-final berth at stake.

The conundrum remains as puzzling as ever.

For O'Gara, there is no such worrisome predicament upon which to fret.

Motivation will continue to course through this 34-year-old's veins. After all, as he reminds us, he still recalls the risible mark out of 10 he received for the losing performance here fully 10 years ago.

"When you get to my stage, or you've been as lucky as I have, you're very grateful for the opportunity to play and that's where I am," he signs off.

And in doing so, for the umpteenth occasion, he brooks no argument.

Irish Independent

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