O’Gara and Sexton set new standards in performance and ambition
The soap opera that was their rivalry at the time tends to obscure even now the grander legacies of Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O’Gara.
They are two all-time great figures in Irish sport, much less Irish rugby. They have both been pioneers of the transformational culture that has seen higher standards in preparation and performance and ambition across the board. Although they played a team sport, the position in which they played meant they were crucial as individuals to the fortunes of Leinster and Munster and Irish rugby.
Wearing the 10 jersey meant of necessity that they had a range of technical skills and cerebral qualities that set them apart from most other players on their teams. But that is true of pretty much every elite out-half. It also meant of necessity that they had to shoulder disproportionate amounts of responsibility for the fate of their teams in competition. That goes with the territory too.
What separated them from many of their peers was that the burden of being the general, the quarterback, the pilot, seemed to liberate them rather than diminish them. They had the ego for it; they had the competitive arrogance; they had the big swinging personality to go with the big swinging job. They had the courage to take the punishment that comes with playing in the eye of the storm; they had the bottle to make the play whilst being broken in half by tackles; they had the psychological resilience to cope with debilitating injuries and with all manner of crisis in performance, or disaster in execution of their work.
They could personally lose games on a single decision or a pulled kick or an intercepted pass. Then they’d have to take the public flak, beat themselves up in private, and come out a week later to step up to the plate again. They went down to the dark place many times and re-surfaced to ride the waves again.
Both of them did all this and became world class operators while doing it. And then they each stayed world class for a decade and more; right at the top, season in season out, come hell or high water. Apart from anything else, they are two of the hardest sportsmen ever to wear a jersey of any sort in this country.
O’Gara finished his career in green with 128 caps and 1,083 points, the leading Irish scorer in history. He has his 2009 Grand Slam, his legendary series of theatrical drop goals, his two European Cups with Munster, his 2,625 points with Munster, his triple crowns, his array of individual awards and not one but two autobiographies. The only wonder is that two was even enough.
He hung up the boots in May, 2013 at the age of 36. He had held on and held on until the bitter end. In 2009 the farmer opened the gate in the field and let a horny young bull into it, much to the chagrin of the old bull that had had the grass to himself for the previous ten years. Johnny Sexton was 24 and mad for road; O’Gara was 32 and blowing steam through his nostrils at the sight of the young Adonis. 'Tis my field, said RoG. Not any more, said Sexto. So they butted heads for the next few years.
It’s all water under the bridge now. But it was good crack at the time and still worth revisiting for a few shots from that bottomless bottle they call nostalgia.
Sexton always claims it began in earnest in Thomond Park in 2009 when O’Gara “had a bit of a go at me and told me what he thought of me,” according to his recollection in a BBC NI documentary earlier this year. In an interview with Brian O’Driscoll for BT Sport in 2018, Sexton’s specific memory was that O’Gara had called him “a nobody” that day in Thomond Park. This account stretches credulity, only because O’Gara would surely have called him “a f*****g nobody”, if he was bothered to call him anything at all. Like everything else, there would’ve been no half measures with the Cork man here either.
Anyway, only a month later Munster and Leinster clashed again in the Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park. History has already recorded ad nauseam that this was the hinge game in the modern relationship between the two tribes. And when Gordon D’Arcy scored Leinster’s first try, with RoG on the floor having failed to stop him, Sexton delivered his infamous shout-down to the fallen king. The prince regent was only short of measuring his own head for the crown. “That was just me sort of saying, ‘I’m here now’,” he explained in that BBC film.
Sexton has consistently said since that he regretted those verbals: he had the height of respect for O’Gara all along. It was nice of him to say it but it was obvious anyway that he had the height of respect for RoG — otherwise he wouldn’t have roared in his face that day.
For the next two years this classic story from mythology of the ageing ruler and the young pretender was reincarnated in the shape of two Irish rugby players locking antlers over who should wear the prize, the 10 jersey in green. There is usually only one outcome in this timeless fable: the gerontocrat shuffles off his mortal coil, youth must have its day.
Did O’Gara accept the inexorable nature of these things and gracefully retreat with head bowed in deference to the new man on the throne? He did in his jacksie. As was totally befitting his magisterial stubbornness, he fought tooth and nail to hold onto the precious garment. At the 2011 World Cup he actually re-claimed it from the incumbent during the tournament and started the quarter-final. In his retirement statement in 2013, he singled out this as an achievement of which he was proud. It “confirmed the belief I had in myself,” he said, “and the doggedness I had about myself.”
Sexton has more or less ruled the roost for the last decade. In 2018 he acquired a Grand Slam for himself, to go with his four European Cups with Leinster, his 981 points and 105 caps for Ireland, his 1,594 points for Leinster, and his World Player of the Year award for 2018. Now less than two months away from his 37th birthday, he has reached the age at which O’Gara pulled up stumps for the last time. But maybe the old master taught him a thing or two about longevity and hanging tough, for in March Sexton signed a new contract that will bring him up to the next World Cup in September/October 2023. He could conceivably overtake O’Gara’s all-time points record before his international career expires.
Presumably he has a deeper understanding now of the impulse that drove his old mucker to fight might and main against surrendering the job he held so dearly. It wasn’t really personal because deep down it was a fight against Father Time itself, against the weakening of one’s powers, against the intimations of mortality that come to haunt everyone.
Disappointingly, they buried the hatchet many moons ago and sadly became good pals. Wiser people might say that they finally learned to behave like grown-ups around each other. But being grown up is overrated. Especially in sport. Sport is the land of the immature, the realm of Tír na nÓg, the society where its very raison d’être is to wage war on the encroachment of age by staying in the game. Staying in the game is staying young. O’Gara then, and Sexton now, were and are fighting the good fight, not the grown-up fight.
Next Saturday in Marseilles comes a postscript to their own little tango in time, O’Gara now the head coach of a La Rochelle team planning to take down Sexton and Leinster in the Champions Cup final. Will RoG have a special plan for Jonny? You’d have to think so. Maybe a few words might be had between them, when the going gets hot and heavy? You’d like to think so.
They’ll have the rest of their lives to behave like sensible men, washing the car and walking the dog. One last hurrah is therefore in order, if only for old times’ sake.