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O'Gara resists the changing of the guard

EVEN now, seven months on, the memory makes Ronan O'Gara wince, if only a little. He has analysed the incident in his mind on many occasions, spooling through a mental videotape. As much as he may wish the outcome to be different, it is not.

It is the second Lions Test against South Africa in Pretoria last summer. With 13 minutes to go, O'Gara, a veteran at that time of 92 Ireland caps, is sent on to replace Jamie Roberts. The Lions lead. The match and the series are finely balanced. A draw or a win for the tourists would keep the tour alive.

What followed was an inglorious chapter in his career. He resembled a version of Pudsey Bear after being clattered by Pierre Spies, with a bandage around his head and with a vacant look in his eye. That perhaps explains much of what is about to unfold.

The final minute and the score is 25-25. O'Gara receives the ball near his 22. The clock is ticking. He weighs up the options and instead of clearing to touch and running down the clock, as many expected he would, he hoists a huge garryowen into Springbok territory. He starts to give chase, signalling for others to follow. They do not. O'Gara alone keeps going.

Fourie du Preez leaps to claim possession. At the same moment O'Gara arrives and takes the scrum half's legs from under him. A penalty 60 metres out. Meat and drink to Morne Steyn.


O'Gara does not seek to make excuses or avoid responsibility for his actions. "But when I got on I was dumped by Spies and for a minute or two I didn't know where I was."

What was going through his mind? "People said I should have kicked it out and settled for the draw, but I was trying to win the Test, get position, maybe a penalty or a dropped goal," he said.

"I thought it was a harsh penalty. But you live or die by your actions. I have thought about it a lot, but I would not change anything."

His action unleashed a torrent of criticism. But one of his great strengths is his ability to bounce back from adversity, his tremendous mental strength.

From the fly half's perspective, one of the most frustrating aspects of the Lions experience was that he did not have the opportunity to redeem himself against the world champions last November at Croke Park. Jonny Sexton arrived on the scene and appeared to take to international rugby with aplomb.

Declan Kidney's decision to drop O'Gara for that match was interpreted as a changing of the guard. It was not, as the Ireland head coach has been at pains to maintain. It was purely the need to see whether Ireland had an alternative to O'Gara in a position.

"After that second Test in South Africa, always in the back of my mind was the thought that I really wanted to prove a point," O'Gara said. "But I didn't get the chance. That disappointment was huge. For the first time I didn't have a chance to respond. But I just have to move on. Nothing you can do about it but prepare and play as well as you can. I don't know what will happen in the Six Nations."

What does he make of the threat posed by Sexton? "Six months ago he wasn't first choice for his club, now he is parachuted into the scene, so fair play to him in that regard," O'Gara said. "But I haven't really looked at other players in terms of competition from within Ireland. I set my own standards"

Last year was one of contrasts. In the first part, he and Ireland were in their pomp. "People talk about me being left out, but my last but one (international) game was making history with Ireland (winning the grand slam in Cardiff)," he said. "I dropped the goal. I am the lucky one. I will never forget that day."

If ever he feels under pressure, he knows the Munster comfort blanket is there to provide succour. Tonight they go into battle at home to Northampton to decide the outcome of Pool One of the Heineken Cup. Munster, twice champions, are favourites and running into form at the right time.

There is 'previous' between the teams. Ten years ago, Northampton won the Heineken Cup at Twickenham and O'Gara was a new kid on the block, just capped by Ireland. He missed a last-minute penalty and the English club won 9-8. His abiding memory is of being stamped on by Pat Lam and Tim Rodber.

If nothing else, he is a survivor. How does he do it? "Just focus on what you are doing," he said. "If you are good enough, great. If not, you have to ask yourself why. That is what I have always done."