Monday 16 September 2019

Ronan O'Gara: 'It still hasn't hit me, the fact that Axel is in the past tense'


Ronan O’Gara is off to New Zealand
Ronan O’Gara is off to New Zealand
David Kelly

David Kelly

Time can pass by as swiftly as the miles we travel but the journeys are never the same. Distance and time are not the same thing at all.

No cartographer can map the human heart as accurately as he can sketch a continent.

O'Gara at a training session with Anthony Foley in 2009. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
O'Gara at a training session with Anthony Foley in 2009. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

It is Friday and Ronan O'Gara slumps in his window seat, eyes at once half open and half closed, before the briefest of shudders indicates that the plane has intruded upon the serenity of the flossy clouds.

Now he can see home. Again. He has left and returned so often that sometimes it seems like he has never left at all.

And as the plane noses slowly landwards across the enlarging patchwork of green, the familiar sights that assault this returning emigrant's senses are followed by the giddy anticipation of so many sounds and voices and embraces to come.

Except there is one voice one that he always thinks he will hear again but, for some reason he still cannot fathom, will not.

"It's weird."

There are times when his wife, Jessica, has to abruptly rouse him from his stupor.

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"Because I'm living outside of Ireland, I presume I'm seeing him again. It's not like I'm just getting on with life like people at home, I'm in a bubble here," he says.

"It hasn't hit me, the fact that Anthony Foley is in the past sense. Jessica has tried to explain to me but I don't… I haven't processed that fact, do you know what I mean?"


He is not alone. Most of the Munster squad congregated recently to see off their departed friend Pat Geraghty, a media officer but much more than that. The rawness of loss still numbs so many.

Sport helped to negotiate safe passage for deep emotion last year and it will do so again during this week of anniversary.

"I will have spoken about it this week to my players," says O'Gara. "The fact that it is Axel's remembrance week.

"And for a guy who is a close friend, the biggest compliment you could give him is that... it almost sounds like a contradiction but here it is: I prepare my team as best I can for his memory because I know what a competitor he was. That's what I'll be trying to do.

"I'm out of the club now but me and Axel, the reality is we had a player bond with another 30 fellas and most of us saw each other at Gero's funeral. So it's all very raw for so many people and at the forefront of our minds.

"The reality is it's another sad rugby occasion for the fellas who are deeply involved with the past of Munster."

O'Gara is an inextricable link to that Munster past, and so many presume he will form part of its future.

Unspool a person's DNA and it would stretch from the earth to the sun; O'Gara's would bleed countless centuries' worth of red. Munster, through and through.

But he is not of them now.

And, just as this week's journey home is difficult, for different reasons, he is probably the only person in the world who doesn't perceive returning for good to be as simple as it is made out to be.

"At the minute, I have an enormous challenge with this group which I enjoy and genuinely, I am not looking at what is happening in Munster. I'm not really into that, you know what I mean?" he says.

"For me, I want to get stuck into this, I want to win things, whether it is here or, the reality is, I'm willing to go anywhere in the world to challenge myself."

Munster have appointed Johann van Graan; O'Gara, who has assisted a title-winning side in the most difficult league in world rugby, was apparently never in the running.

He is not as bothered as many might wish him to be.

"I don't know anything about him so I can't comment accurately. It's amazing opportunity for him," he says.

"I had good advice from my father and close friends, they always say you're either the best or you're nowhere. So if I want to be the Munster coach, I want to make sure I am winning trophies.

"The title of being Munster coach doesn't interest me. Being a winning Munster coach is all that should matter. I would need to make sure I give myself and the team the best chance of winning titles."

You say he might be under-selling himself and wonder just how long can he claim he is under-cooked.

"I appreciate you saying that but the way I always looked upon it is, if they want me they know where I am," he says.

"I wouldn't be doing that if I accepted the job now. Because I'm under-cooked. There's a difference between under-selling and under-cooked. And I think the people who know me well would say that I am being smart and respectful.

"I've won a Top 14 title as an assistant coach, that's it. I'm still learning but the reality is I want to prove myself in whatever I do as opposed to coming back to a job in the unknown.

"The public will always support me but it would have to be people in decision-making positions saying to themselves, "hey, we have to get this guy. He must have something about him.'

"Hopefully the Racing players can say that about me. 'This guys knows his sh*t. He's a good guy. He's a good coach'."

Getting the Munster job would, some day, be a dream; getting it and not being a winner would be a nightmare.

The pressures, too much. The prestige, fleeting.

"That's good for three days and it has never interested me," he says. "You need to win. People's opinions don't interest me either because you have to be so driven yourself to get the best.

"I have pretty strong ideas about what I want to do going forward - getting a strong coaching group - the value of a management group is almost as important as the players, they need direction.

"Anyway, this is my fifth year coaching so I don't think I have experienced all the skills. You're right, there's a day you have to jump.

"I'm going the next step. You'd like to think there's much more to learn.

"That's why I'm here still; I have a big impact at this club - and if I didn't feel that way, I'd be out the door."

Or Jacky Lorenzetti, the boss, would show it to him.

Lorenzetti's spanking new €350m U-Arena was christened on Thursday. O'Gara, who hours earlier had been handed a €15,000 fine and ten-week ban for berating match officials, watched the Rolling Stones open with Sympathy for the Devil. G'wan Mick!

When Munster won the Heineken Cup in 2006, Lorenzetti wouldn't have known a rugby ball if it smacked him on the kisser; marriage, and an extended family with a passion for rugby, changed all that.

He got himself a club and now he wants the world. This U-Arena is an extraordinary venue; here, they want the future now.

Europe, where they lost every match last season, would be a start. Their recovery from a sluggish start to beat Leicester Tigers in Paris last week offered hope.

"We're determined to do well in Europe. When you watch the knock-outs in this competition...the Pro14 doesn't do it for people back home. The Top 14 is different. It's a slog.

"But we can park that at times and target this. We didn't have the mindset right last season in terms of knowing how much the English and Irish teams target these games.

"We didn't get off to an ideal start but we came back. We always talk about performance but that was a result."

Outside the Racing 92 dressing-room; half-drunk Heineken bottles exchange clinks as old friends Geordan Murphy (now Leicester's assistant coach) and O'Gara shared thanks and praise as another sporting day is done.

Both are happy, even though only one has won; Leicester will enjoy their losing bonus point.

Suddenly, O'Gara spots a familiar figure. "Jackeeee!" The Heineken bottle wave beckons him but "Jackeeee!" moves slowly and carefully.

Not because he is in his 70th year but because Lorenzetti moves how he wants. You guess if his house went on fire, he would move the same way.

Aside from Racing 92, Jacky has €10billion in the bank; he fires coaches and players and staff at a whim.

"Here, this is the interview you really want," says O'Gara, who begins to conduct it himself.

"Jacky, will you be going to Thomond Park on Saturday."


"Jacky, who will open the new Racing stadium?"

"The Rolling Stones."

You tell him O'Gara once played with a sporting troupe who were as experienced and wizened as the Stones.

O'Gara smiles but Jacky doesn't get the joke. The interview is over.

Somehow it always comes back to Munster.

A year ago to the day last Saturday, O'Gara never got to chug a beer or crack a joke, and Racing 92 never got to play their opening Champions Cup game.

The sides meet in the Thomond cathedral today and O'Gara still can't fathom that Axel won't be there to share it all.

Tomorrow, he will visit the grave in Killaloe with Alan Quinlan, the bare branches of the trees outstretched in supplication like arms, at once wildly chaotic and gently longing.

Maybe then it will all hit him. Then again, maybe it won't.

"It's weird."

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