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O’Gara admits concerns over Munster’s ability to return as Euro force

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Ronan O'Gara

Ronan O'Gara

Ronan O'Gara

Like another famous Cork sportsman, whose response to disappointment was a swift hike with the pet mutt, there are occasions when Ronan O'Gara just needs some time alone with man's best friend.

Just as a brooding Roy Keane would often respond to professional setbacks by hitting the road with his four-legged friend, so too O'Gara.

Last Sunday's Heineken Cup defeat to Ulster was another such instance.

And so boxer bitch Tia, who joined the O'Gara clan when Munster won the first of their two Heineken Cups in 2006, enjoyed another long outing amidst the rain-soaked Douglas streets on Monday morning.

Sadly, such days are becoming painfully familiar for the Irish out-half of late.

Another year over, another Heineken Cup campaign sprinkled with regret and failure. He's 35 now and time is ticking impatiently after another fruitless European quest.

"That's it in a nutshell," he says despondently. "It was a big opportunity and on Saturday evening we'd have fancied getting to Twickenham. I'm not saying we'd have won there, but you fancied getting there.

"So that's disappointing. You don't have a semi-final to look forward to, all the build-up to a final if you got there. It's gone, that's the bottom line. You can't do anything about it.

"Last year we didn't qualify. It was different this year. But there's no doubt about it. I think this year we should have got to Twickenham, but 'should' and 'are' are two different things in sport.

"That's what hurts -- you don't necessarily know if you'd be good enough to win the competition this year. But with all that had gone on, it would have been a good achievement by the group to get to Twickenham.

"At least you could feel proud of what you'd achieved.

"But now, it's six games out of six in qualification down the Swanee, and there's a small bit of wondering where you go next.

"We didn't perform for the 80 minutes that we were given. In that regard, the better team won. You can talk and analyse as much as you like, but you have 80 minutes to do your talking and we didn't do it.

"That's top-level sport, and it's very disappointing, obviously, but I wouldn't be making excuses or anything. That's where we are."

The grim finality of failure pierces his frame of mind. He declares that the mood is "low" in the Munster camp, even after a frank and honest squad review of Sunday's defeat.

"It was a good review, if you can say that, because people learned stuff, but the horse has bolted. That's the disappointing thing, you don't get the chance now to put it right and that's what makes winning medals so difficult."

Most alarmingly, the fear factor has dissipated. Sides are no longer wary of Munster's reputation as they once were; O'Gara's familiar escapades with drop goals in the group stages exposed fault lines, rather than confirming familiar strengths.

Even more worryingly, Thomond Park no longer screams intimidating defiance in the faces of the opposition. And, after a decade of success, even two Heineken Cup medals leave some folk feeling a bit short-changed.

"Yeah, I suppose that's always going to be cyclical," he avers. "What's probably annoying for the more experienced, the older players on the team is that we haven't achieved more before this season. We lost a final in 2000 and didn't win one until 2006.

"If you rewind your emotions and thought processes back then, there were post-mortems and emotions back then as well.

"We've been knocking on the door a long, long time and the reality at the minute is probably that there are a few teams better than us in Europe. Well, not many, and we're trying to hang on. But we need to do a bit more to compete and to win medals.

"We had our mentality back this season, that it was all about Europe and the league is what it is, the league. But now you have to refocus on trying to win whatever silverware is available."

Supporters crib that transition has occurred at glacial pace; however, only five of last Sunday's defeated starters survived from the 2009 quarter-final, and there were nine Heineken Cup debutants this year, to add to the 51 different players used last season.

It is not O'Gara's fault that he remains the far superior out-half option in Munster.

"I don't think there is any frustration that the younger guys haven't pushed through. It's a club competition and I think a lot of the Munster players are club players.

"A lot of the Leinster squad are full internationals and they have that learning ground. Felix Jones, Denis Hurley, Simon Zebo -- I don't know if they'd played a quarter-final before last weekend.

"Believe me, everyone gets an unbelievable crack off on it and if they're showing promise in training, you can be sure that they'll be thrown into the team. A lot of these young fellas in Munster are behind exceptional players.

Calibre

"They don't come around that often. If you look at the back-row of Quinlan, Wallace, Foley, Jim Williams, that calibre probably isn't there at the minute, to be honest about it.

"That's why these people are playing now. Like you're talking about freaks who were playing for Munster, and Leinster probably have players in more positions.

"But, like, Munster were years ahead of other people."

Quite poignantly, it just seems that a great team has just grown old together.

They're still in with a shout of retaining that league title, but European success is what drives winners like O'Gara. Has he any confidence in suggesting that the tide can be reversed next year?

"At the minute you wouldn't have much to be honest," he says ruefully. "Like in all aspects of business or life, you go away and have a look at yourself and review yourself. And each and every one of us needs to do that and come back and see where it takes us.

"You can't do that until the season ends so you have to put the Rabo into perspective, and then irrespective of how that goes, if you want to be the best in Europe you need to have a look at yourselves."

Until that uncertain time, Tia can prepare for a surfeit of long, long walks.

Irish Independent