Monday 20 November 2017

Peter Bills: 'Eternal, incredible, immortal' O'Gara keeps glistening in his golden twilight

Peter Bills

Inner peace is a state of mind that has become increasingly rare in modern life. As the old joke from 'Yes Minister' goes, when did you start acquiring a taste for such luxuries?

It is a situation beyond the reach of millions of citizens in our present world. Discovering a real peace in your mind is a highly desirable -- but increasingly elusive -- commodity.

Thus, to hear one of Ireland's most distinguished rugby men confess to arriving at such a destination was something of a surprise last weekend. But then, Ronan O'Gara has had an exceptional last couple of weeks.

His skilful last-minute drop goals in the Heineken Cup against Northampton and Castres turned a home defeat and away draw into two wins for Munster. These were notable acts, yet O'Gara was not referring to either when he revealed his true inner feelings and present state of mind.

What he meant was that, at 34, he felt in probably a better place mentally than he had ever been before. He has long since mastered the intricacies and demands of the out-half role in rugby's firmament. The long years of practice and playing experience have combined to provide an assurance -- a deep conviction that he knows the requirements and that he is equipped both mentally and physically to handle whatever is thrown at him.

He puts it like this. "The older I get the more I seem to enjoy it. At the World Cup I think I found inner peace. I had huge contentment and I think I played like it. Where did that come from? I think as you go on, you re-evaluate and get more experience.

"Before, I think I felt the pressure on me so much because of what I wanted to achieve. I don't think I am being cocky in saying I have now achieved a lot. But now I play for the enjoyment. Also now, I have kids and I see the other side of life; it isn't all just rugby. You can compartmentalise things so that you get the best out of rugby and the best out of your family life."

Maturity in human beings is every bit as attractive as in cheese. The flavour of what you get is greatly enhanced, the appeal likewise. O'Gara is hardly ready for his carpet slippers -- one glance at his lean, taut, sinewy body tells you that.

But at 34, he's in that desirable twilight era for a sportsperson where an individual well knows his or her capabilities can adapt accordingly and produce a series of top-quality performances in part because fear, inner doubts or outside pressures no longer invade the mind.

In some sports, this 'golden twilight' can last years.

O'Gara, in ever so subtle a way, strongly hinted that he has the mental desire to continue for some significant time yet. What did he say to justify that? Well, it was more the player he named as an example that revealed his thinking.

"An idol of mine was Diego Dominguez. I always thought he was a class act," were his words. This was a class comparison.

Out-half Dominguez was 37 years old when he played his last international, for Italy against Ireland in 2003. Even then, he played another year for crack French club Stade Francais before finally retiring at 38.

Dominguez won 74 caps for Italy (besides two for his native Argentina) and scored 983 points for the Azzurri. O'Gara, who was 34 in March, currently has 116 caps for Ireland and has amassed 1,075 points. Give me a couple of weeks and I'll have finished counting up how many he has managed for Munster.

So how much longer could O'Gara play for? The temptation these days is to end a World Cup and mentally write off any player the wrong side of 30. But this is absurd. Only later in life (or later in a sportsman's career, as in this case) is an individual truly at his peak; confident, calm, measured, in control of what he does and a major influence on those around him. To have watched O'Gara this year, firstly at the World Cup and most recently in Europe, is to have seen the truth of this borne out.

He himself brushes aside any invitation to forecast how long this twilight of his career might last. Two years, three years? "I don't know, I can't put a time limit on it.

"There are examples as the game changes, of course, but the one thing you can't beat is experience. I have always considered the mind the most powerful tool in sport. Everything comes from that and I think that is a good strength of mine.

"I don't feel there is any reason why I can't go on playing now. People say after a World Cup it is time to finish, but I feel I am playing as well now as I have ever played.

"If I can manage my body well, who knows? People can always talk you down or talk you in or out. But only you really know how you feel, how you are playing. And I feel I am enjoying my rugby greatly at the moment."

Perhaps the greatest challenge going forward in this particular scenario confronts not the player, but the onlooker. The latter is being asked to bury those years of prejudice that a rugby man is past his best at 30. Modern-day players like O'Gara and New Zealand full-back Mils Muliaina, who is in his 32nd year, are bucking that tend, turning old theory on its head by the excellence of their play.

You should judge not on mental hyperbole, but the evidence before your eyes. And just to ensure impartiality, let us leave the last words on O'Gara to a Frenchman who watched him in Toulouse at the weekend and a Kiwi who confronted him.

Raphael Ibanez was not only a very fine hooker, winning 72 caps for France including 27 as captain, he also led the French to successive Grand Slams in 1997 and '98 and went on to captain them at the '99 World Cup where they reached the final.

What did Ibanez think of O'Gara and Munster's performance last weekend? "Munster played with so much experience and you could spot the difference between a team that has been in the Heineken Cup for the last two years and a team like Munster.

"They were on the back foot in the first half, but they came back with some brilliant phases, especially the match-winner O'Gara. He is eternal, quite incredible. Immortal even. That's the kind of player you want to have in your team."

From the lips of Castres' beaten captain, ex-All Black Chris Masoe, came a similar tribute. "It came down to experience and being patient with the ball. In games like this when the going gets tough you have to rely on your most experienced players to deliver. And a guy like O'Gara does that every week."

Irish Independent

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