Last chance saloon
Series may be gone but O’Gara insists first ever victory over All Blacks still a huge prize as he accepts role behind Sexton
QUEENSTOWN -- as a salve for raw wounds opened in Christchurch last weekend, this beautiful, tranquil tourist town appears pretty much perfect.
And there is much to heal. Two key players (Gordon D'Arcy and Jamie Heaslip) lost to injury, the rest still feeling the soreness of what was an incredibly intense, brutally physical encounter -- and then there are the mental fissures.
To have come so close to a famous victory only to have it snatched away by a questionable penalty and the sponsored boot of Dan Carter represents a serious psychological blow, making the break in Queenstown particularly timely.
However, when Ronan O'Gara sits down in the team hotel to analyse the events of last Saturday night and look ahead to the final Test in Hamilton, he is impervious to a stunning vista of lake, mist and snow-capped mountains set out through the window in front of him.
"It doesn't mean anything to me," he says. "The week of Test matches with my mindset, I could be in Cork. All that matters is the game. I have got better as the years go by in (realising) that you can relax, but it is too good an opportunity at this stage.
"Saturday is last-chance saloon for a lot of us to fill the massive void that is there in terms of never beating New Zealand in their careers.
"They (the All Blacks) will respect you only when you beat them, that is fair enough -- that's life isn't it? So that's exactly where we are. We can't have any complaints.
"We lost it in the first 40 minutes I felt, in terms of when we were 10-0 up, we gave away nine soft points and then the try they conceded probably shouldn't have been conceded because, watching from the sideline, I thought our defence was really good."
When O'Gara did come on following the injury to D'Arcy, Jonathan Sexton switched to the inside-centre slot and suddenly Ireland began to ask even more questions of a rattled All Blacks defence.
The 35-year-old was pleased to have made a telling contribution but admits he was praying for the winning drop-goal chance that fell to Carter.
"Jeez, yeah ... I would have taken that strike that Carter missed too! I was visualising it, any break in play I was trying to pick a spot and stuff and I was saying 'is this going to happen? Please'.
"And it is particularly frustrating when you don't get the (opportunity), I can live with having a go and missing, it's the not getting a go that is very frustrating.
"But it did go well for me, it was really enjoyable. When you get two passing options, it works when you have someone who is hitting hard lines, and in fairness to Brian (O'Driscoll) that is exactly what he was doing.
"I am in a great state of mind, whether I get one minute or 80 minutes, and I've been trying to say this to the inexperienced fellahs, you have to make an impact and you have to raise it by 20pc from the fellah you are taking over from.
"When you start doing that, Ireland will be in a far better place. In fairness, the bench did make an impact and that is crucial. Having time to reflect on it, what was needed was a try, that would have been the ultimate stamp on the game if we could get over the line.
"Tries win big games and we had possession and maybe, 30 metres from their line, we switched the ball twice when maybe the dummy switch would have worked better -- I'm not saying we would have scored, but there was a lot of space on (Julian) Savea's wing.
"But these are all things that are easy when you are watching the video, you have got to trust your instincts when you are playing.
"Restarts as well. In fairness to Carter, he has great ability to put the ball where (Kieran) Read wants it. But what people don't understand is, and I'm saying it, but that's his easiest kick, so cut it off.
"Jonny was kicking to his right, but our restarts were probably not where Jonny wanted them to go. He's obviously a very good and talented kicker, and he can put them where he wants, but I don't think they went where he wanted them to go and it is an important part of the game.
"How do you beat them? It's such small margins. You have to be competitive to give yourself a chance of winning.
"We were particularly poor in Eden Park. Now we've shown we're competitive, we'll have to be prepared for a New Zealand backlash.
"They probably felt -- and had every reason to feel -- that they'd beat us in second gear. They'll be smarting now this week and they'll probably start in fourth gear.
"The pleasing thing about last weekend is we put ourselves in the position to win, but we didn't get over the line.
"I know from the past, the more you are in these positions, you'll get over the line the next time. You can't be fluctuating between Eden Park to Christchurch to a mediocre performance.
"You can't have fluctuations like that. You've got to have your values and your standards and keep hitting them. In the Grand Slam (year), there was just belief of winning, even if you're not playing particularly well, these things happen.
"And to compliment New Zealand, they shouldn't have won at the weekend. They are down a man, they're under the cosh, but they win the game."
There were calls in various quarters for O'Gara to be left at home for this tour on the basis of looking to the future, but his performance on Saturday has put him in line to start in Hamilton, particularly with D'Arcy injured and Sexton going so impressively at 12.
The 123-times capped 35-year-old is around too long to make any assumptions about selection this weekend and is happy to fulfil whatever role is asked of him.
"I'm 35 now and I'll be competitive until the end. The day I don't think I can be No 1 will be the day I'll walk. I just feel that I just need to have a positive impact and that's exactly what it has been for the last, whatever, seven games, since the World Cup," he said.
"The World Cup was where I needed to prove a point, getting back into the team for that and that couldn't have gone much better. I realise that there has to be a plan for the future, a continuation. To be honest, I've accepted that in terms of what's going on (with selection)."
Maybe Queenstown is having an effect, after all.