O'Gara's days as leading man far from over
RONAN O'GARA is accustomed to being number one. The guaranteed selection, the main man, the playmaker -- it suits and brings the best out of him.
After a stellar schools career under Declan Kidney at PBC Cork, O'Gara beat the well-trodden path down the Mardyke, across Western Road and onto UCC. 'Pres' and their city rivals CBC Cork have been supplying rugby players to the Cork university for generations and it is accepted that when you are in College, you play for College.
Despite still being a teenager, a player of O'Gara's quality was always going to be fast-tracked into the senior side but when he arrived there he found the No 10 jersey occupied. John O'Mahony, a talented footballer and place-kicker (who would go on to set the all-time points-scoring record in the All-Ireland League), was first choice out-half and was not for budging -- O'Gara found himself playing centre alongside his future Munster and Ireland colleague, John Kelly.
University rugby moves in four-year cycles and players were expected to bide their time until the older guy that had their place moved on. O'Gara left after one year and joined Cork Con, the club where he had played his underage rugby and his departure caused quite a ruckus among the College 'elders'.
It was a move that fell squarely into the category of 'Not The Done Thing' but one that also testified to the single-minded ambition of the man who went on to nail down the 10 jersey at Con, Munster and Ireland.
Ninety-nine caps later, the plan was to lead the team out against the world champions tomorrow and, given what O'Gara has contributed to Irish rugby, receiving the acclaim of a grateful crowd on Ireland's return to Lansdowne Road would have been a fitting acknowledgement.
Instead, his century milestone will either be reached off the bench tomorrow or from the start against Samoa the following weekend when the ground may be less than half full. Throughout 2010, pundits and punters have repeatedly made the assertion that Jonathan Sexton is now the acknowledged first-choice out-half and his selection for tomorrow's clash was widely expected -- but not by O'Gara.
His form for Munster this season has been superb. In the seven games he has featured in, O'Gara has been at his game-controlling best, steering Munster to the top of the Magners League as well as their difficult Heineken Cup pool.
There is not much more that he could have done to force the hand of the Ireland coach but Sexton, despite his relative lack of game time (three starts and 24 minutes off the bench against Munster) and solid rather than spectacular showing against Connacht, still got the nod.
Sexton has come through fantastically well over the past two years, his attitude and all-round game are perfectly attuned to international rugby and Kidney is right when he says he is fortunate to have "two world-class out-halves" to choose from.
However, maintaining that O'Gara is destined for bit-part roles up until and through next year's World Cup reflects neither the player's determination nor the vagaries of form and fitness over the next 11 months.
On the verge of his 100th cap, it is worth remembering O'Gara's contribution. The go-to guy for four Triple Crowns, two European Cups and one Grand Slam, last season he was voted the best Heineken Cup player in its 15 years of existence.
Last year, O'Gara was slated for giving away the penalty that lost the second Test and the Lions series against South Africa. However, the end-of-tour reviews failed to recognise the excellent displays that should have earned him a starting role ahead of Stephen Jones for the first Test.
Other performances jump out -- the flawless display in the teeming rain of Lansdowne Road in 2002 when Ireland realised they were good enough to beat southern hemisphere nations; coming off the bench to drop the goal against Wales in Cardiff in 2003; the try against Scotland in Murrayfield in 2007 when he blocked down a kick on half-way, re-gathered, off-loaded and took the return pass to cross under the posts. O'Gara's 100th cap should be loudly acclaimed. However, no-one should think his days as lead man are over.