Friday 15 December 2017

'I'll miss it terribly,' admits O'Gara

Legendary No.10 sets sights on Ireland job as he faces up to life without Six Nations

Ronan O’Gara
Ronan O’Gara
Ronan O'Gara of Munster looks on during the Heineken Cup semi final match between Clermont Auvergne and Munster at Stade de la Mosson on April 27, 2013

Ian Chadband

Something will not seem quite right when the Six Nations kicks off this weekend.

After 14 straight seasons of combat, after playing more games and scoring more points than anyone in the championship's history, one of the tournament's monuments, Ronan O'Gara, will be missing and he is not about to deny he will miss it something rotten.

"Oh Jeez, yes. I'll miss competing," concedes this grand man of Cork, now immersed in a tough first season of coaching as an assistant at Racing Metro in Paris. "It's that half an hour sitting in a winning dressing-room after the game, that's what I'll miss most. Oh, and the all-day drinking session after the final game!"

O'Gara (right) gives a broad smile, which is a giveaway in itself.

The out-half, who was intensity personified in Munster red and Ireland green and who has shouldered more pressure moments in sport than anyone should reasonably be asked to handle, admits he is much more relaxed now his job involves the management of others and not the personal weight of having to carry a nation with a single kick at goal.

"Going back to Lansdowne Road last November, I was pitchside doing a bit of TV before the Australia game when all the boys were warming up. It felt very, very strange," muses the man who amassed 557 points in 63 championship matches for Ireland, steered them to four Triple Crowns and, with his late, late 'drop of genius' against Wales in 2009, a first Grand Slam for 61 years.

"Even going into the ground as a now-retired player felt odd because it reminded me how, essentially, I had nearly become institutionalised in rugby as a player. It was the only thing I'd known since I left school; my life for 15 years. Now I was out of the bubble."

The love affair between ROG and the championship had ended in desperate anticlimax last year when, following a dismal performance after coming off the bench against Scotland, he was dropped from the squad for the first time in 13 years.

His utter dismay, as well as the rest of his most trying days over the final four years of a career in gradual decline but interspersed by the odd sparkling high, was captured in a documentary which held Ireland in thrall at the start of the year.

O'Gara's pre-match high anxiety, his spikiness and single-mindedness, his gradual eclipse by his rival Johnny Sexton and eventual decision to quit playing last May was all captured in a searingly honest portrayal of one of Ireland's most compelling sportsmen.

In an interview after his 2009 heroics, O'Gara had told me he wanted to be remembered as one of the game's greats but would have to compile a list of achievements that would mean it could not be "open to opinion". Could he now say, five years on, that he had achieved his aim?

On the plus side, there were the astonishing points records in the Heineken Cup and Six Nations and the nine trophies he had been instrumental in winning; on the other, a failure to make his mark with the Lions.

"Well, it's very difficult because now if you say you made it, you're seen as a cocky, arrogant git," shrugs O'Gara.

"Now I've retired, I can only say I gave it my best shot. Still, I suppose in a way it is in the 'great' category because you're measured in terms of performance and when I played for Ireland, we had a good winning record and Munster were a serious team, two Heineken Cups. So you could look on it that way."

Rugby generally does, as will be evidenced on February 20, when the game's great and good will turn out at a special testimonial dinner for the 36-year-old at the Hilton, Park Lane, in London, also designed to raise funds for the Ireland Fund of Great Britain charity. Yet while this celebration will be a nod to O'Gara's past, the man himself still has much to contribute to Ireland's present thanks to his link-up with Sexton at Racing.

In the documentary, the crackling tension between the pair's duel for the No 10 shirt is constantly visited, like the comical moment when one of O'Gara's four kids, Molly, tells dad via Skype after Sexton had begun the World Cup victory over Australia: "Johnny was wearing your jersey."

Now, after chauffeuring Sexton to training every day, the pair get on like a house on fire, a world away, says O'Gara, from the days when "he was thick about the competition and I was thick about it too".

"I realise that we were quite alike," he reflects. "The only thing I try to say to him is that he has to try to enjoy it more, to smile more, which I know is rich coming from me.

"It's what I wish somebody had said to me earlier in my career too. Because it's very hard when you're the incumbent, there are different standards expected of you than if you're the challenger, you're judged differently. A lot is expected of Johnny now.

"He's 28 and you have to keep performing. He might have, say, another six years but there's always another whipper-snapper waiting in the high grass to have a shot at the title. So there'll be plenty of competition for him."

O'Gara fancies that Ireland, under new coach Joe Schmidt, who had such an influence on Sexton at Leinster, could win the championship this year.

"They have a great relationship and it's beneficial for both of them because Joe needs Johnny at his best for Ireland to succeed and vice-versa. Results have been unacceptable, highly inconsistent, up to Joe taking over but there's unanimous approval for him as a coach, which is rare."

For both O'Gara and Sexton, the French adventure has been a challenge so far with Racing's expensive multinational mix having struggled to gel, mediocre in mid-table in the Top 14 and dumped out of the Heineken Cup.

"A massive culture shock," concedes O'Gara. Yet nothing has dented his belief. "I think ultimately I will be a good coach," he says. "I think some people when they stop being a player start to see rugby through a computer, but it's important you don't analyse the hell out of it.

"It's crucial that you are a good man-manager and I do think as a player at Munster, knowing how to get players playing for you was a strength of mine."

So down the line, could he be inspiring them back where he belongs, as Ireland's national coach?

"I don't have a long-term ambition, I don't lead my life like that, and I'm only just into coaching now," says O'Gara. "But to me, that doesn't sound a daunting statement." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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