Monday 18 November 2019

'The French had a different attitude to cheating' - ROG

Rugby legend Ronan O'Gara explains to Donal Lynch why he would have achieved more under Joe Schmidt

Ronan O’Gara: He has made a home in New Zealand. Photo: David Conachy
Ronan O’Gara: He has made a home in New Zealand. Photo: David Conachy
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

From Brian O'Driscoll to Sonia O'Sullivan, most of Ireland's sporting icons enjoy a retirement at home where they can bask in the nostalgic glow of their achievements. But not all of them.

Ronan O'Gara, whose golden right foot once inspired the entire nation, has continually been on the move since he hung up his boots in 2013. He settled, first, in France where he coached for Racing 92 for four years, before moving to New Zealand where he coached The Crusaders to an eighth Super Rugby title last year.

It was a huge professional achievement that came at no little personal sacrifice for O'Gara: the kids taken out of school in France (they had become fluent in French) and taken across the world. And for himself and his wife, Jess, the upheaval of a new, slower pace of life eight time-zones from the people they love.

O'Gara is bluntly honest and self-deprecating in acknowledging the cost that was paid for his ambitions.

"I am beyond selfish, I couldn't disagree one bit with that. Everything is turned on its head down here. It's January but it's also the summer holidays. It's hard to get your head around sometimes. If Jess wasn't positive or the mother she is, it would be harder for me. My family have made sacrifices for my career. I am defined by my wife and my relationship with her."

Rugby still provides a reason to come home, however. O'Gara will be a key member of Virgin Media's commentary and analysis team for the upcoming Six Nations - the channel has a mouth-watering schedule of matches, which will begin this Friday at 7pm, with France v Wales.

He says it will possibly be the "most exciting year in the history of Irish rugby" - principally because he thinks this current national team will not make the mistakes his own legendary team made.

"I think we did peak too early [after the Grand Slam triumph in 2009] but I don't think that will happen with the current team in the World Cup, because they are more obsessed with performances than they are with results.

"I remember when I was a young player, I wonder if there was an honesty call and we put up our hands in the dressing room, how many of us would say we really believed we could beat the All Blacks? Our mindset was more about hoping, than having a concrete plan and saying, 'if we do this well we will beat them' - in that sense that they were better than we were."

Key to the current team's unprecedented excellence is the stewardship of Joe Schmidt, whom O'Gara wishes he played under.

"There is nothing like playing against a team when you are being coached by one of their own to beat them," ROG explains. "I do think if I was playing today I would have achieved more under Joe Schmidt. That's not a criticism of Declan Kidney or Eddie O'Sullivan, it's just you can see now that Schmidt is the best the world."

For two years after he stopped, O'Gara intensely missed the adrenaline rush of being a player, but latterly he has come to enjoy the nuances of coaching. Alan Quinlan once described him as "selfless, driven and able to f**k someone out of it" - but while ROG takes issue with the last bit of that description, he concedes there may be a grain of truth in it.

"I have a temper but I've gotten way better at being able to manage it and understand what it means. In coaching, I take a big interest in the technique and tactics, but also the psychology of the players. We get personality profiles now. We learn how to speak differently to someone who has a different personality - a blue dot or a yellow dot."

He still carries the scars of his playing days - his lower legs and feet hurt a bit from all those epic kicks, he explains, and there isn't the luxury of massages to get over injuries - but in other ways he doesn't envy the current players.

"There's loads of issues we didn't really deal with to the same extent. Concussion and the size of players are two of the big issues. Some of the guys over here are so huge and powerful. They have more force and power and so the collisions are going to be more dangerous. You have to keep reiterating the message that it has to be a safe game."

He doesn't see a realistic way to limit the weight of the players, however.

"You couldn't limit it, legally speaking, I think. People could say you're discriminating against nations where the people are naturally bigger.

"A better way would be to tell players that bigger isn't always better. Keith Earls has stripped down and become lighter, and more agile, but he's also not getting knocked about on the pitch. He's a key person for Ireland.

"I think starting playing the game early is important too. Players need to learn how to position their necks and heads because it's a dangerous sport if you don't sort of instinctively know what to do, even on autopilot."

He says the attitude to cheating within rugby is cultural and not everyone shares the Irish sense of fair play.

"There's cheats in every sport and there's definitely cheats in rugby. It's so hard when you're training the house down naturally and trying to make gains in the gym and then you hear of a teammate, or someone you're playing, taking something, it would just disgust you.

"But when I was coaching in France, I was suddenly exposed to people from different cultures and realised some people had a different attitude to those things.

"The generation I grew up in, it would have all been about the shame you would bring on your family if you were tempted. You'd feel you would ostracise your family from the parish and that's a good way to feel. But I don't think everyone had that."

He says that the increased emphasis on physique in rugby has also been part of the erosion of gentlemanly values and increased the temptation for players to gain an unfair advantage.

"We've seen in rugby league and in South Africa cases of players who never came through the under-age structure - where they would learn good values - but are just sort of plucked from a gym to play the game."

Off the pitch, too, there are temptations that ROG says were not as great in his day. Instagram has made social media celebrities of some of the young players and the money makes them millionaires at a much earlier age.

"My first contract was £7,500 a year - you can't compare that to what guys today make. The temptations were great back then, but they're bigger for players today. I'm not up to speed on Instagram and I don't want to be. You have to be careful about generalising about people's relationships. A lot of the so-called 'rugby groupies' were our girlfriends, who became our wives. If you want to call them groupies, I don't think they'd like that description.

"We had great fun. I'm sure there are models who think their career would be enhanced, but then a rugby player gets a model on his arm and maybe that's what he wants too."

What does he think about players like Simon Zebo or Ian Madigan, where it appears that they have effectively sacrificed their international career for a club opportunity?

"Yeah, every decision is different," he begins. "Players leave and do jeopardise their international career. I've thought about this quite a bit. It seems to me to be a huge privilege to give up.

"Playing for your country is the ultimate honour. But Simon always had an urge within himself to travel and speak French, and so it was a lifestyle decision more than a money-making decision - you have to respect that.

"Madigan was No.2 in Leinster and needed to get game time and got a belting contract from Bristol, which will hopefully set him up for the rest of his life."

As for his own sacrifices, he is proud of his achievements over the last year in New Zealand - but he doesn't sound exactly settled in the country and a line of communication remains open with the IRFU.

"That's a good question [whether he wants to stay there]. I do love the club, but it's just so far away from Europe. At some stage I want to work in Irish rugby, but I don't know what that role would be yet. There are a lot of different areas in the game, there are lots of things I could do."

He says that the England vs Ireland game at the Aviva will be the highlight of the upcoming tournament.

"I remember that feeling of coming through Dublin airport for those games, and everyone, from the people working in the hotel - from the sparkies to the plumbers - wishing you luck. You knew by the look in their eyes how much it meant to them and it was a great feeling having that responsibility.

"The players are aware of that feeling. It's the biggest year in our rugby history - and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens."

All 15 games in the Guinness Six Nations will be live on Virgin Media One, kicking off this Friday with France vs Wales at 7pm.

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