'The paparazzi didn't exist then... or any female looking to get a leg-up' - Ronan O'Gara and wife Jessica on falling in love
Jessica O'Gara is a beauty. Dressed in a cream blouse and pink silk puff skirt, she has blonde locks and a petite frame. You can only imagine what Ronan had to do to woo her.
Were there flowers? Constant knocks on her front door? A cheeky chat-up line that made her smile?
Save the romantic daydreams - because some great love stories get off to a shaky start. For Ronan and Jessica, love sprang from a game of 'Kiss and Torture'.
I'm sitting in the grand surrounds of Mount Juliet, sipping tea and eating sandwiches with the duo, who were recently appointment as Sport and Style Ambassadors for the Longines Irish Champions Weekend next month. Ronan (39) explains the aforementioned game to me, as if it's the most normal courtship practice in the world.
"You catch the girl and ask her if she wants a kiss."
And if she doesn't?
"You ask: 'Do you want to be tortured?'"
"A Chinese burn . . ." he says, shrugging.
Things may be different in Cork. But before you get the wrong idea, this incident didn't happen in a nightclub after a match - this pair were 12.
Still, Ronan remembers it like it was yesterday: "I can visualise it perfectly. Her image stayed in my head."
They crossed paths again studying psychology in UCC, and not even the possibility of messing up their friendship could have deterred Ronan from the chase: "I was well prepared to lose the friendship we had developed if I didn't get her. It's 20 years later now, and it's flown. No, the only regret I have is that time has gone too quickly."
In those days, Ronan was playing rugby in UCC - and was a long way from the roaring crowds, fame and glory that would follow. "I went to training on a bicycle. There would have been no talk of having cars," he says, describing the simplicity from which their love blossomed.
Are you glad you met Jessica before success?
Jessica turns to Ronan, and they recall a memory - they were sitting next to former English player Jonny Wilkinson in the stands at an England versus Ireland game. As Jessica (38) explains, "Jonny said to us, 'You're so lucky you guys met years ago, before Rog was famous, because I find it hard to meet a girl that wants to talk to me for me. All the girls I meet are all about the rugby'."
Ronan thinks about it for a minute. "I suppose if you were well-known when you met a girl, you would always have a question mark in your head," he says. "You would ask yourself, 'Is she the one? Is she here for the rugby career, and when that ends, is it going to fall off a cliff? Or is she here because of real values?' But I knew Jessica was with me for the right reasons, because at 18, there weren't any paparazzi taking snaps of us going into places.
"The paparazzi didn't even exist," Jessica chimes in, before Ronan continues, "or any female looking to get a leg-up. That culture wasn't there."
Jessica recoils at the thought of the scene. "I would hate to be involved in it."
"Yeah, but the other side of it, too," says Ronan, "is that the fellas playing now are really good guys. It [that dating world] is just the norm for them, so they have to be extra careful about who they pick."
For their part, Jessica and Ronan did things the right way around.
Although the rugby star can be known to make the grand romantic gesture - "We had dinner in the Eiffel Tower a few months ago for Valentine's Day," says Jess - in the beginning, the courtship was very ordinary.
Where did you go on your dates?
"The chipper," Jess laughs, "And the Chinese restaurant, and a place where we used to go to get lunch rolls."
Ronan looks like he is in heaven at the memory. "They were beautiful, the best rolls in town," he says. "They were actually manky," his wife interjects.
But culinary differences aside, Jessica knew she loved Ronan at 18. "We were just best friends, and the spark was there," she says.
Ronan agrees. "I always kind of trusted my instincts. There was something inside of me that wanted to chase her down, and I feel if there's something worth going after, then you go after it, no matter what. She is very natural, and anyone who meets her is surprised at how warm she is."
Ronan is not the typical macho rugby player I had expected. He is thoughtful and grounded, and shows his sensitive side when I ask questions about romance, and what makes love work.
"I think we do the simple things well, every day. There is none of this building up to special occasions. I'd like to think that the two of us are very consistent. There aren't massive highs and there aren't massive lows, and we have always had a good laugh. That's the most important thing; it keeps the spark going," he says, looking over at Jessica. "Obviously, she is very good-looking, too," he laughs. "It definitely helps, like, but at the same time, after 10 or 15 years sitting on the couch, there has to be some bit of good crack between two people - otherwise, what's the point?"
True to his nature for keeping it real, Ronan went down on one knee in their kitchen, while Jessica was having her tea and toast, on the anniversary of the day they first met.
It was early January, and the pair were looking forward to going to Kerry together to celebrate 10 years of dating. "That anniversary celebration is gone now, though," warns Ronan. "You'd have to be careful . . . she'd be looking for another night out, separate to the wedding anniversary."
"I'm good, like . . . but I'm not that good," he quips, before turning to Jessica, teasing, "You get your one night out a year."
I have a friend whose boyfriend flew her half way around the world to propose, only to pop the question in their hotel room. Why didn't he wait one more hour for a nicer location, having travelled so far? Perhaps it's a guy thing, so I'm curious why Ronan didn't wait a few more hours to get to Kerry - why on earth did he propose in the kitchen?
Ronan comes back with an answer that would put any superficial romantic in their box.
"Because the location doesn't change anything. You can pick somewhere fantastic, and you can hire a boat out on the most beautiful lake, and you can throw rose petals everywhere if you want to, but at the end of the day, that type of stuff doesn't last. What you need for it to last is for her to have respect for me, and for me to have respect for her. It was very average, but [the location of the proposal] was where we lived, where we were happiest, which kind of meant something for me."
So why wait 10 years?
"I thought we had a great relationship between us, so I was kind of saying, 'Lets just keep going the way we were going'. But when you get married, it does change, I suppose; it makes the bond concrete, you know? When you are just boyfriend and girlfriend, it's a little bit different. Anyway, if she didn't have a ring at that stage, she deserved one."
They were married in July 2006, and their twins, a boy and girl - Rua and Molly - were born two years later.
Three more children followed - JJ, Zac and Max - in the midst of a glittering career, wealth and fame. They are a couple who seem like they have everything - he's an international sports star, she's good-looking, they have healthy children, a luxury home, and success. But Ronan is real about their package.
"I'm telling you, you could write a book on what's gone wrong," he says. Jessica laughs and nods in agreement. Ronan says, "I think that's what people hopefully like about the two of us. The fact that nothing in the career I've been so fortunate to have, has been plain sailing. It was the complete opposite, actually. And Jessica has had to put up with some amount of it. So that's why I admire her more, because it's a small country with a lot of rumours and a lot of whispers and a lot of negativity. She has been tested, and so have my parents and so have her family.
"Thankfully, they kind of knew who I was and it was never an issue. At the time, when there was stuff about off-field rumours, that was tough, but it didn't last."
Jessica agrees. "It was upsetting. But at the same time, I knew they were just words on a piece of paper. You learn, you grow a thick enough skin and you don't take much notice of it, really."
I wonder if negativity is a trait rooted in the Irish psyche. They believe 90pc of Irish people are goodwilled, but Ronan says, "Certainly now that I am out of the country, I can see the situation like that a little. In France, they would be really happy for your success, but in Ireland, people sometimes might say, 'good enough for him' when something goes wrong."
If there was any Irish player who showed the emotion, the strain, the pressure and the relief on his face, it was Ronan. As the kicker, the whole nation often waited with bated breath, as our fate frequently rested on his shoulders.
In the crowd, more than most, Jessica was experiencing every emotion with him: "His face would have been on the screen a lot because he was the kicker, and I always felt I was going through that with him. I have been in tears plenty of times. But I've more memories of the tears of joy."
Often the stress of playing was brought into the home. And it was then that Jessica turned to the wives and girlfriends of other players for support.
"We'd all be kind of joking and going, 'Oh God, they lost. It's going to be a bad week!'," she says. "But then you'd make light of it, and they would mourn the loss for one day and then have to start getting ready for the next week and move on."
Ronan describes the reality of dealing with his crippling nerves before a match. Sometimes he would reach the point where he would be physically sick before a crucial game. "It would happen in the hotel once or twice a year," he says. "There are only certain games that can bring you to that level of desperation. It just shows how much you want to win, but I guess it was a weakness on my behalf that I couldn't control, but there's no point on saying that it didn't happen, because it did."
He says therapy was an option, but brushes it off as a "crutch", when the reality was you still had to go out and play. But he wasn't the only one with that level of anxiety. He describes how his big, burly 20-stone, 6ft 4in former Munster Rugby teammate, John Hayes, could barely eat his pre-match lunch because his gut was so twisted from stress.
"I think it was because the team had a special bond with the supporters. That Munster team from 2000 onwards, the RTE panel [Tom] McGurk, [Brent] Pope and Co, got behind them and took rugby to a whole new audience. People forget that in 1999 or 2000, there were 300 people at a Munster game in Dooradoyle. Twenty years later, it's just as popular, if not more so, than other sports - and across every class."
As Ronan's fame grew, so, too, did his fan base and the inevitable female contingent who wanted a piece of the champion team. Rugger huggers, jersey pullers - call them what you want, but Jess knew they were there.
"Ah, yeah," she laughs. "It would have been in a nightclub at 2am, and none of us would have been in great condition. It used to annoy me, but I never really let it get the better of me."
For his part, Ronan seems oblivious to the attention. "To be fair, I don't think being a rugby player or a group of rugby players in a nightclub was the issue. It was the fact that it was 3am closing time in a nightclub . . ."
But Jessica has that female instinct: "Ah, there were plenty of rugger huggers . . ."
"Were there?" he asks.
"Do you not remember?" Jessica laughs.
"I don't know . . . Cardiff would have been a bad spot. The Welsh girls."
"Ah but that's nothing [to do with rugger huggers]," laughs Ronan, "that was just Cardiff!"
Maybe as a woman, you would see it a little bit more?
"Yeah. Exactly, exactly," Jessica says.
Jessica always chose the classy way to handle the interference. "I would hang back. I wouldn't be too [involved]. There would have always been a couple of the girls together, and we would have been having our own fun."
In recent years, Jessica has taken a career break from her job as a primary-school teacher in Cork, and uprooted her life so that the family can be together while Ronan is working as a team coach to French champions Racing 92. They have recently moved to Sceaux - 10km outside Paris - and their children speak fluent French, playing in their newly adopted language, and sometimes even correcting their parents, but Jessica says the family got off to a very tough start.
"We moved over at the end of August. They started school on September first, and the older three, from September to Christmas, cried every morning. They didn't want to go to school. It was awful. You'd see them going in in the morning, and they would be crying, and they wouldn't be talking to anyone, just standing on their own in the school yard . . ."
"It was horrible," Ronan agrees. "You'd question yourself. You'd be so worried asking yourself, 'Am I doing the right thing here?' It's not nice seeing your kids cry."
The birthing experience with their last child, conducted through a foreign language, was a tough one for Jessica, too."I just remember at one stage being tired and just thinking, 'Oh God, can we just speak English for a minute?'"
Ronan laughs, "Obviously, I was completely desensitised at this stage after having five children. She was going, 'Look at you, enjoying me in my pain', and I wasn't disagreeing with her," he laughs. "I was just mentally in the place where I wanted to get down to the takeaway to get food."
Jessica shakes her head. "I remember with one of the children, Zac, I was in agony, and he was checking the bloody Saturday-night Lotto results."
Ronan says, "Jessica is a great mother; she doesn't try and get away from her kids.
Jessica adds,"You are more of a family unit when you are over there, because there are no distractions. There is no one else."
"It's great for me," says Ronan. "I go to work and I come home, and no one ever calls to our house, because we don't have any friends over there, really."
Jessica laughs, and says, "That sounds very sad."
"Noooo, like, sorry, what I mean is we don't have any real friends," Ronan clarifies.
Jessica, are French women are different to Irish women?
"Oh God, yes," Jessica says. "They are just so unfriendly really . . . Well now, not all of them, but the Parisians are worse than the rest of France, and the rest of France would say that about the Parisians. There can be some ladies, mothers of kids in school, who I would see every morning and I would say, 'Bonjour', and they would barely give you a smile back. But then other ones would be very friendly. But I would just always be nice anyway."
Although the couple are slow making connections in France, their roots are strong in Cork, and outside his marriage to Jessica, and his parents, Ronan is keen to point out another big influence on his life. A friend, a confidante, a life coach to him: developer Michael O'Flynn.
"I have to give huge credit to Michael," he says. "He has been one of the greatest influences on me both personally and professionally. He is the person outside of the rugby bubble that I turn to for good, honest advice, be that about strategy or the team-spirit side of things.
"He has been a mentor, really," continues Ronan. "Everyone needs a 'no man' in their life, as opposed to a 'yes man', and I guess he is mine. Just one of so many examples would have been the time he said to me, 'Don't announce you are retiring without being able to say what you are going on to', or he would often tell me to think about how I wanted to transition away from playing on the field. He really helped me position myself and my career, so I cannot speak highly enough of him."
It was imperative for Ronan to have such a source of independent, sound advice outside his family, but, inside it, Jessica is number one. So what is the secret to them still going strong, after 20 years together? "I'd say being friends first of all, and then being able to laugh about things," says Jess.
Ronan chips in to say, "I suppose, for me, I was chasing . . . I was in an extremely privileged position for a long time. I was extremely selfish. If Jess wasn't the person she was, the thing would have been pear-shaped a long time ago. And that is the reality of it. I think she understands what I want out of rugby, and the return I got from it, and she had a good laugh too. It wasn't a case of we me doing it on my own - we did it together." For Ronan, he says, "that was crucial".
"Yeah, I travelled the world," says Jess.
Ronan, why would you say you were selfish? "Because you have to be if you want to succeed. So I'd go kicking on a Sunday afternoon if I felt like going kicking. Like, most wives would say, 'No, well, actually you are going for a walk with me'."
Jessica laughs at this.
"To be fair," Ronan adds, "Jess was sitting on a couch every Saturday night throughout the year when all her friends are kind of out in a pub and a nightclub . . . a lot of the time, it must have been extremely tough for her. There'd be nights, then, when she would be out and I would be at home on the couch, but you just can't . . . something has to give."
Everyone talks about how great it would be to be married to a top-level rugby player, but what's the hardest part?
"Putting up with . . . while he was playing, if they were tired, if they had a bad match, if they had an injury - oh, the worst was if they had an injury," Jessica says, as Ronan laughs. "You know, they'd be on the couch with the machine on their leg trying to fix it, or there would be a physio coming to the house . . . and look, I just made sure he was fed. That's the way to a man's heart, isn't it?"
I tell Jessica she seems to have to have lived and breathed rugby too.
Ronan turns to her and says, "You do the off-pitch, and that's what is key about you. Then, on-pitch - no, she wouldn't have a clue what's going on," he laughs.
He explains, "Well if she was into rugby that much, it wouldn't work either, because some women do try and offer their opinion about the game, and the game is too complex for them to have an input on." Jessica admonishes him, but Ronan is sticking to his guns: "No, but for a lot of them. A lot of them. It's very good to separate them."
And where does the future lie? In five years' time, Jessica says, "My family would want me to say I see myself back in Cork, because they miss us so much, but I wouldn't say I would have to be back then. It depends on where Ronan's job takes him."
Ronan says France is an option now that the children have found their feet. "From our point of view, our biggest achievement in the last three years has been getting the kids into the foreign school system and speaking French. It's class now, looking at the kids doing that, even having tennis lessons in French, and it wouldn't have happened unless they had an open-minded mother, because I go every day, I go to the rugby club; it's Jessica who is running the show, and that doesn't end.
"Every two weeks, I go to an away match, and I sleep in a hotel like a king for two nights, and then come back. It's nice to know in your head that there is a real boss running the show."
Style and Sport icons Jessica and Ronan O'Gara have been announced as this year's ambassadors for Longines Irish Champions Weekend and will be attending the weekend with family and friends. The event brings together two iconic Irish race meetings at Leopardstown, and now in its third year, it is the first leg of a European Triple Crown of championship race meetings ahead of the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp and QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot. It takes place at Ireland's premier racecourses, Leopardstown and The Curragh, on September 10 and 11. See irishchampionsweekend.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Emily Callan
Make-up by Eilis Downey;
Hair by Neil Ryan, both Sugar Cubed, 1a Westbury Mall, Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 672- 5750, or see sugarcubed.ie
Photographed at Mount Juliet Estate
With thanks to Mount Juliet Equestrian
Escape the everyday with a luxurious break at Mount Juliet Estate, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Overlooking Ballylinch Stud, Mount Juliet Estate is home to an incredible, Jack Nicklaus-designed parkland golf course and boasts one of Ireland's finest Michelin star restaurants, Lady Helen. For further information and to book an escape, tel: (056) 777-3000, or see mountjuliet.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine