Monday 20 February 2017

O'Gara driven by hunger to restore No 10 pecking order

Published 10/02/2010 | 05:00

While veteran out-half embraces the challenge of Sexton rivalry, the Corkman is keen to show why he's first-choice in Paris cauldron Photo: Getty Images
While veteran out-half embraces the challenge of Sexton rivalry, the Corkman is keen to show why he's first-choice in Paris cauldron Photo: Getty Images

"The days of being taken off and just accepting it were long gone." Ronan O'Gara in 2005, extracted from 'My Autobiography'.

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"Just because I was dropped there was no need to panic. You have to go away and sort things out in your head and come back." O'Gara, February 2010. Snapshots of this sporting life.

2000: Ireland win in Paris. O'Gara is replaced late on by David Humphreys as Ireland trail. The Ulsterman kicks the winning points. But O'Gara knows his time is coming.

2005: Humphreys once more replaces O'Gara in an autumn clash against Australia. Ireland lose. O'Gara launches into a training-ground tirade against then coach Eddie O'Sullivan. He threatens to quit. He's glad he doesn't.

2010: O'Gara, having once more being supplanted, this time by a younger model, Jonny Sexton, returns to kick six from six against Italy and is named in the team seeking their first win in Paris since 2000.

Big wheels keep on turning.

Except this time, O'Gara is now a veteran at 32, now a father, now more comfortable in his rugby slippers than seemingly at any time, now seemingly better prepared than at any time in his career to deal with competition, criticism and confidence.

Yet it still rankled when he was dropped last November. He wanted to face down South Africa and his Lions demons. He never got the chance. The hurt didn't linger.

"Of course it's hard to be positive," he confesses. "It hurts. It's very disappointing. Especially if you care about the team so much. My mantra always has been if the team goes well, then the 10 goes well.

"I've been lucky enough in the fact that, in the last decade, a lot of the times that has happened. But I've seen the other side of it and that makes you more determined.

Grateful

"If you're going to be consistently around for 10 years and playing such high-profile games, you're going to have both sides of the coin. But I've been very lucky and grateful for the teams I've played in."

You wonder if, unlike before, perhaps, the bigger picture is easier to see. Declan Kidney wants two out-halves, capable of playing at any time, any place, any circumstance. An enlightened egalitarian approach, maybe, but one at odds with his sporting ego?

"Yeah, well that's a train of thought," he partially accedes. "But if you're trying to be ruthless as a sportsman...there was one thing in my head after the summer and that was to try and beat South Africa, so that was the one game I wanted to play in.

"It's the big game of the autumn really and it's the one that everyone is talking about. It was the game I knew we were going to win, so it was an opportunity to put it right, but I didn't get that opportunity.

"Jonny did well so that hurts. But you move on. A lot happens in a week, never mind a month. It seems like a long time ago now, but I think it's still fresh enough to keep me highly motivated."

Strange to think that Brian Carney -- the rugby league convert who flopped for Munster and Ireland, despite nabbing Tommy Bowe's 2007 World Cup place -- played perhaps his most pivotal role off the field.

Watching his career unfurl helped O'Gara supplant introspection with perspective.

"When you get dropped you try and look to see were you can make improvements, look at yourself a little harder. You try to blame people bar yourself. I suppose the great thing about that is, I had a year or 18 months with Brian Carney, who featured for his first year, but then just didn't feature at all.

"Just his attitude and his professionalism opened my eyes as to how you can succeed when things aren't going your way. Just because I was dropped, there was no need to panic. You have to go away and sort things out in your head and come back."

Nonetheless, after his autumn exclusion from the Irish team, the first time in six years he had felt the dreaded tap on his shoulder from a national coach, O'Gara knew that others wanted evidence that he could rebound.

He demanded it himself. And it arrived on familiar home turf against Perpignan in December.

"I was under pressure," he agrees. "I had to produce that night, otherwise it would have meant me and the team suffering.

"There were question marks asked and all you have to do when things aren't going well and your mettle is tested is to knuckle down and work harder.

"I remember the dressing-room afterwards, I wasn't relieved. I just needed to know for myself that everything was in working order."

He appreciates the vivid competition for his place, arguing strongly both that there must be competition and that he has never lacked for motivation even when challengers were limited.

Challengers can still be rivals, though. He wouldn't withdraw co-operation from his out-half rival. Neither, however, would he actively counsel him.

"I think Jonny is a really confident player and person," he says. "I don't view myself as superior. I look on him as a good player. It would be more discussion than offering advice.

"He's a keen student of the game and appreciates back-play and he thinks about the game a lot. I think about it as well. It's good in training to see how he thinks France will defend on Saturday and stuff like that."

Ah, Paris. Four years ago, O'Gara went to France after that infamous row with O'Sullivan and promptly opened the door for 14 French points in a surreal encounter; there was no alternative, so he stayed on and almost helped pull off a most remarkable coup.

Peaks

His career is littered with such peaks and troughs. Even now, he believes he can improve.

"I know I can get better. If I thought I couldn't, it's not much good. You have to know you can because that's what's required to be part of a winning Munster team or a winning Ireland team.

"That's my goal, knowing that I will get better. The last few weeks, there has been an improvement every week and that has to continue this weekend.

"If you want to succeed and keep coming back, getting selected for your country -- I have been so lucky to be selected, this is the 95th time -- you have to be good at a lot of things.

"You also have to be able to deal with the disappointments and the mental side of things. You're the hero or you get slated. I don't think that some people can handle that mentally and that's been a strong trait of mine.

"I can take the rough -- and by God there has been some rough times -- but you have to dig in and believe in yourself, keep coming back for more. Sometimes it has not been easy, but you appreciate the great days so much."

It is little coincidence that most of them have featured Ronan O'Gara. And so he starts another decade, older and wiser. Knowing that the past is only the future with the lights turned on.

Irish Independent

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