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Sunday 20 October 2019

Rog leaves the boots and gossip behind him

The silver lining for O'Gara is that he may be entitled to a payout from the Revenue, says Donal Lynch

Ronan O'Gara, Ireland, kicks a penalty
Ronan O'Gara, Ireland, kicks a penalty
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

He is our baby-faced boy wonder, blessed with matinee-idol good looks and once-in-a-generation talent. To howls of anguish in Munster he has just called time on a career that saw him become Ireland's most capped player ever. His gambling has been vanquished. His marriage has lasted the course despite what he once called "black, spiteful" gossip that surrounded it. His financial future is better secured, thanks to a contract coaching with French team Racing Metro. And his lore will only grow with time.

So why does Ronan O'Gara always seem to feel so hard done by?

The answer might be partly in the sense of entitlement he shares with other born winners. Two moments bookend O'Gara's path through top-flight rugby and illustrate his attitude to failure. When he was just 17 he had his first trial for a place on the Ireland schools team. Despite playing well, he was only rewarded with a place on the subs bench for the B-team – a creditable if not spectacular result. But for the young Cork man and his monumental ambition it represented abject failure, and there was no smiling at it in hindsight.

Almost 20 years later, the memory still scorched. In his autobiography O'Gara described the omission as the first "savage kick in the teeth". The implication was that many more were to follow. When coaches would joke with him about the incident – which was ironic given the greatness he went on to achieve – O'Gara could never bring himself to raise a smile. Two decades later and O'Gara was at the tail end of a career that has made him revered within the sport and a household name outside it. His form had dipped for Munster and Ireland, however, and to some observers the writing was on the wall. Still, when word leaked out of the Irish rugby camp that for the first time in a decade a fully fit O'Gara would not line out for his country, the shockwaves were felt beyond the sport. Once again the bearer of bad news was Declan Kidney.

The then Ireland coach had perhaps foreshadowed his cull of old soldiers in stripping Brian O'Driscoll of the Ireland captaincy, but the omission of Rog was an even greater bombshell. Not least for the player himself. After the coach's own departure O'Gara himself spoke guardedly of his "mixed" times with Kidney, but the true depth of his feelings was laid bare in the quotes in which his wife, Jessica, launched an attack on Kidney and the IRFU for "really mistreating" her husband in putting him out to pasture too early.

"The way last season ended for him was dreadful. I felt it would have been great for him to have one last day at the Aviva, he could have been clapped off the field," she said, adding that the fact that Ronan had been playing so well for Munster made his omission from the national team all the more galling.

It was a surprisingly passionate and public broadside, especially given that O'Gara has always been so guarded about those close to him becoming the focus of media attention.

Indeed, Jessica herself referred this past week to the turmoil she and Ronan felt when French media circulated reports in 2007 indicating that their marriage was over. "That was awful," she said. "Going into work, knowing people were talking about it but not really discussing it with you . . . I went in, did my job and went home. I went to a match in Paris and there was a photograph of me in one newspaper here, walking out of the hotel. I didn't see the photographer who took that, which really freaked me out."

Rumour always seemed to outstride O'Gara. He has called Ireland "a nation of gossipers". If it wasn't his marriage, it was his gambling. The Munster star has said he has put an end to the days when he did "too much" gambling, and admitted he has lost "a fair bit of money" on betting, but denied that it ever had an effect on his on-pitch performance or that it got him into debt. O'Gara has since said that he's given up gambling entirely.

The rumours were a counterpoint to a career of highs on the pitch – an unprecedented number of caps for Ireland, the all-time record for points scored for Munster and Ireland – and a contrast to the image of his nearest equivalent: contemporary and friend Brian O'Driscoll. O'Gara's wife joked last week that she was "gutted" when she and Ronan didn't receive an invite to Prince William's wedding, but the quip still invited comparisons with the only Irish player who was invited: Brian O'Driscoll.

They came up at the same time but BOD always seemed that much more at ease in the spotlight, less defensive, more ambassadorial. For O'Gara the polished wholesomeness demanded of a sports star was a burden; for O'Driscoll it was second nature. Who could forget O'Gara, slouching, hands in pocket like an insolent schoolboy, as he prepared to meet the Queen? It was a stance that seemed to sum him up – one side of him in step with the establishment, the other showing off a faint resentment of the whole circus. O'Gara has said he never wanted himself and Jessica to be like Posh and Becks and seemed affronted at the media interest in his personal life.

He played rugby, he said, for the love of the game, not the accompanying celebrity. That love was fostered by his father, Fergal, a biochemist, who throughout his career was his son's wisest counsel and greatest cheerleader. He and his wife brought their son back from Sacramento – where Ronan was born – and raised him in Blackrock, a suburb of Cork.

As a child O'Gara played many different sports, specialising in rugby when his talent became obvious. It was thought that Ronan would need a back-up in the form of his education. In his autobiography he writes of his and his father's disappointment with his performance in the Leaving Cert, but he went on to study at UCC (where he was recently granted an honorary doctorate) and was soon playing fly-half for Munster.

This was the era when rugby began to move from small amateur sport with a core following ("of about 200 people", O'Gara once quipped) to the professional and deeply corporate entity we know today.

Although renowned as "a kicking machine", O'Gara, always slightly built, struggled to make the physical grade required of him and even contemplated taking "illegal substances" at one point – although he never did. His phenomenal mental strength came at a price: rugby was not always a pleasure for O'Gara and towards the end of his career he spoke of the constant pressure he felt under as he seemed locked in a permanent competition for his place on the national team.

"It's probably only in the last few years that I've figured out how to enjoy the game because I had 10 years of, if not hell, inner torment where I was worried too much about other people's opinions and I was trying to please everyone," he said.

Although money was increasing in the game and he reeled in a slew of endorsement contracts, O'Gara's financial dealings sometimes made the wrong kinds of headlines. A part of this was the rumours around his gambling, but by his own admission he made some unwise investments and after a few years of healthy profits his company, Stand Off Promotions, posted losses in 2011. The silver lining for O'Gara may be that now he has hung up his boots he may be entitled to a payout from the Revenue Commissioners (see panel above).

O'Gara speaks fluent French, so the upcoming move to Paris will be made easier and he will have reminders of home: one of his charges will be none other than former adversary Jonathan Sexton. There also may be a few small drops of glory to eke out of his career yet: Racing Metro has not ruled out a playing role for ROG either.

His old bete noir of press intrusion may be lurking in the long grass – the French have looser libel laws than here – but O'Gara takes his lumps and moves on with the business of winning. A million "kicks in the teeth" down the road, the persecution complex is undimmed – and so is the fire.

Irish Independent

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