Sport Rugby

Sunday 19 November 2017

'I need to learn every day – be challenged'

Ronan O'Gara hopes to ultimately bring it all back home – just like fellow Corkman and kindred spirit Roy Keane, writes David Kelly

David Kelly

David Kelly

Two sons of Cork returned home from exile recently. Kindred spirits, who, although their worlds diverged, have forged similarly uncompromising courses in their professional and personal lives.

Roy Keane did not need a second invitation to pitch up at Ronan O'Gara's testimonial in Cork. He did, however, demur at being invited to the stage by MC and former Ireland captain Donal Lenihan.

"I said I wasn't coming up on stage you f****r!" he grimaced good-naturedly. "I've already dodged a few bullets this week!"

In the event, he didn't say much. He didn't have to. His presence was enough.

"I'm certainly no expert on the game, but I have great respect for him," said Keane of O'Gara.

"It's about showing respect for other sports people. Where Ronan played is a tough position, he's under a bit of pressure to kick it and what the top lads do at the top level is they deal with that.

"The accolades and the respect Ronan commands, I had no problem coming over and passing on my best to him."

Keane is now returning to these shores as a prodigal son, to begin another exciting curve in his coaching career. O'Gara is only starting out on that particular journey.

Having experienced a playing career that incorporated with equal measure the vigour, single-mindedness and success enjoyed by Keane in his sport, it may not be long before he, too, returns home to answer his country's call.

In his latest autobiography due out this week, O'Gara reveals his greatest motivations and fears, his inner thoughts and desires, with the sense of honesty that has also typified Keane's equally gilded and lengthy career at the top of his game.

We see the raging against the dying of the light, the inability to accept anything less than utter honesty from team-mates and a reluctance to shy away from delivering opinions that others would dare not even contemplate uttering in private.

And yet, for all their exalted, public status, both are strenuously defensive of their private lives, despite the constant questing for intrusion.

In essence, for all their seemingly outspoken bravura, they are essentially defined by shyness once they retreat from the white line.

"Apart from my Munster and Ireland team-mates, I have a close network of family and friends," writes O'Gara in Gerry Thornley's adroitly constructed work. "I wouldn't have embraced people outside those circles.

"I'd imagine there is a perception of me as insular, difficult, maybe even rude, even though people who know me wouldn't use those words."

It is description that could easily also apply to Keane. They share a stubbornness in their world view that is at once isolating and insulating.

"I realise I'm not the easiest person at times to be told stuff and that comes from having a strong personality and having so many caps," adds O'Gara, before adding a dollop of modesty that Keane occasionally is also capable of revealing, "but I need to learn ever day.

"I need to be challenged every day and no matter how many senior players are in a squad, they need to be motivated.

"They need to be challenged and they need to learn every day too."

The standards demanded by both are exacting and neither apologises for the fact, no matter how much each may have offered offence down the years.

Keane has belatedly acknowledged the need for humility, a softening in his character after experiencing harsh managerial lessons. O'Gara is further down this particular road, you feel.

"I don't think I'll be impatient with players, partly because I'm starting off as a coach in France and the French like to do things slowly anyway, and partly because I don't think I am an impatient person.

"I have really high standards and I expect them in others, but I'd be prepared to compromise.

"I also realise that 'you can't beat the mob' – but if the mob don't have high standards then the team aren't going to win anything, in which case you have to move on.

"Hopefully, I'll remain composed, even though people expect me to have really high standards.

"I've seen people become flustered and lose the head, and it doesn't do anything to improve their performance. It actually inflates or accelerates the problem. I want to remain cool as a coach. There's always a next game."

Despite his inexperience, O'Gara's is the template of the seasoned coaching figure; the above passage is something that Keane could be well advised to take note of as he steps into the cauldron of international football.

O'Gara concedes he's "only crawling as a coach" and it could take "years and years" to make it; should his family fail to settle down in France, he admits he will have a big decision to make.

Family remains his priority; the private outstrips the professional, as Keane has also had to re-evaluate at times. Too often, it has been difficult for outsiders to parse the difference, much to each man's personal cost.

And yet, for all of O'Gara's mellowness as he embarks upon a new life, his reflections on his recently concluded playing career contain enough cordite to remind one of the searing honesty and single-mindedness that drove this individual to perfection even within a team environment.

Few escape his wrath, be they rivals Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson; opponents, Felipe Contepomi; and even coaches, Declan Kidney and Rob Penney.

"If I'd have started against Scotland we would have been out of sight before they came into the game," is his opinion of last spring's dismal defeat to Scotland. It is an opinion expressed by many supporters; only O'Gara, who watched as Jackson struggled from the kicking tee, could publicly profess it though.

"Goal-kicking is crucial. For a head coach to say goal-kicking is a secondary role for an out-half is not an accurate comment. It wasn't Paddy's fault he was selected."

In O'Gara's mind, it was Kidney's. He lets us knows this, but the barbs are honeyed; he feels Kidney should still be involved in the game, for one thing. The pair spent a lifetime together and the final parting was always going to be difficult.

At Munster, his incipient decline last season wasn't always, he feels, down to him alone. He recalls being replaced in a game against Edinburgh when the team imploded after his departure.

"That's when I had an outburst in the changing-room with Simon Mannix, our backs coach. 'Why would you make those changes?' I asked.

"Changing three decision-makers! You and the coach are on about us trusting the new game plan, but you've got to trust your players a little more.'"

As the season advanced, with O'Gara's magnificent performance in a Heineken Cup semi-final not enough to defeat Clermont as they just fell short, you sense that players like Paul O'Connell emerged as more influential forces as far as the out-half is concerned.

He has little truck with outsiders in general, one feels – perhaps it is a Cork thing, a reflection of that county's innately suspicious bearing.

He rails against the influence of outside coaches in Munster and also naturalised Irishmen, too, suggesting that a 10-year residency rule should be applied as opposed to three.

Again, these are awkward sentiments to express, but O'Gara sees no reason why they should remain inexpressible.

Like Keane, he is a Cork man first, an Irishman second. An inherent contradiction, perhaps, albeit hardly incompatible, as he makes clear.

"Ireland needs to be placed on a pedestal," says O'Gara with statesmanlike rhetoric. "In this country, we're afraid of putting our necks out and I can understand that at times. We are not, by nature, a brash nation. All the more reason therefore to restore come confidence in the national side."

We shall expect Keane to echo these points and more in the coming months. After a peripatetic career, Keane is bringing it all back home.

Some day, O'Gara may follow a similar path. "Maybe I'll be back one day," he says. His commitment to detail at times is compellingly related; at times the book could double as a coaching manual in itself.

Anyone who knows O'Gara – or indeed Keane – could not doubt the possibility that he may one day return.

These two formidable personalities continue to defy convention in their commitment to ridiculing the impossible.

'Ronan O'Gara – Unguarded' – With Gerry Thornley, published by Transworld, is launched this evening

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport