Thursday 23 January 2020

Munster will fight to the bitter end: O'Gara

Ronan O'Gara has reached the veteran stage at 33 but is still vital to both Munster and Irish causes.
Ronan O'Gara has reached the veteran stage at 33 but is still vital to both Munster and Irish causes.
David Kelly

David Kelly

WE already know what Ronan O'Gara's week will be like in the build-up to tomorrow's Magners League semi-final. His "nerves are in s**t". His "stomach is turning".

He struggles with big-match build-ups more than most, it seems.

And so it was a compelling sight to see a battered and bruised O'Gara accepting the backslaps of appreciative colleagues as he departed the Cardiff City Stadium pitch last weekend, his unerring boot having done much to plant a tentative Munster side into the last four of yet another competition.

Except he's not into backslapping all that much either. "I'd love to play the game and go home," he goes on to explain in his stunningly candid autobiography.

Yet even behind closed doors, it's difficult to escape the madding crowd as the dizzying debate continues to swirl dervish-like as to whether he or Jonathan Sexton is Ireland's pre-eminent out-half.

Tomorrow evening, O'Gara will have another opportunity to frank a lasting impression in the mind of Declan Kidney ahead of this summer's foreboding summer tour to New Zealand and Australia.

Thanks to Irish rugby's Pravda-esque release of players' medical conditions, we will not know for sure until lunchtime whether or not Sexton will be fit enough to return to the fray.

O'Gara would, you suspect, relish that prospect even more, but, regardless of who fills the blue No 10 jersey, it will be fascinating to see how one of Irish sport's most absorbing characters rises to the latest challenge of his distinguished career.

Like his team, seeking to deny Leinster an unprecedented four successive wins in tomorrow's sell-out RDS clash, O'Gara has been written off on umpteen occasions by all shades of opinion, often by his own supporters.

O'Gara is now a veteran at 33, now a father, now more comfortable in his rugby slippers than seemingly at any time, now seemingly better prepared than at any time in his career to deal with competition, criticism and confidence.

You wonder if, unlike before perhaps, when he threw his toys so publicly out of the pram during that infamous shouting match with Eddie O'Sullivan in 2005, the bigger picture is easier to see.

Declan Kidney wants two out-halves, capable of playing at any time, any place, any circumstance. An enlightened egalitarian approach, maybe, but one that struggles to marry itself to O'Gara's sporting ego.

During the Six Nations championship he spoke about the "hurt" he felt when Sexton played well against South Africa during the autumn international series, after being denied the opportunity to wreak some sense of personal retribution against the side who had so singularly targeted him in the dying moments of last summer's Lions series.

As has often been the case throughout his career, the bosom of Munster provided the solace he needed when his struggles were at their fiercest; his technical adjustment to his kicking style had also back-fired spectacularly in the early weeks of this campaign.

When both team and player emerged from a trip to Perpignan with their questionable reputations once more stoutly intact, O'Gara's sense of deliverance had reached yet another profound stage.

"I was under pressure," he recalled later of that pivotal December victory in France. "I had to produce that night, otherwise it would have meant me and the team suffering."

Nevertheless, were it not for Sexton's broken finger, it is likely that Kidney would have begun the Six Nations with the Leinster man as his starting out-half. As it was, O'Gara got the nod at the start against Italy and France, before Sexton returned to oust him once more.

The mutual respect between O'Gara and Sexton is obvious, but O'Gara's has been the more awkwardly elucidated, particularly in public.

Many felt that the Cork man should have replaced Sexton far earlier in the dismal home defeat to Scotland which scuppered Ireland's Triple Crown bid. O'Gara thought so too, as he told a selected deputation of English journalists last month.

"It's an interesting position I'm in," he said.

"I understand Ireland need to develop two out-halves, but Test rugby is played in the present tense. The most frustrating part of the Six Nations from my point of view was that we didn't win a Triple Crown. Ireland have only won 10 in their history and I felt I could have made a better go of that (Scotland) game from the start."

Having thus undermined both his coach and rival, O'Gara then went on to decry a supposed "Dublin" bias. "At times when you listen to some of the media in Dublin, you have one out-half who has played 100 Tests and another who has played six or seven and you don't know who they're talking about.

"I don't have much of a relationship with them."

It was suspected that he was highlighting an article written by the occasionally contrarian non-sportswriter Kevin Myers towards the front of this newspaper, one to which he, unusually, replied in person by penning a letter to the editor.

Following his comments, I suggested to him that, after producing a stunning individual display against Northampton in the Heinken Cup quarter-final, it was typical of him to follow a verbal grenade with a destructive performance on the field.

"I didn't have a rant this week," he answered. "If you read the whole article, I think it was very balanced.

"It's easy to pick things out and make a headline story out of it and it was the same this week. I suppose all I ask for is honesty and I don't think that is happening at the moment in certain areas. I think it would be better if the information was accurate and facts, rather than opinions."

It's a fair point, especially when placed in the context of yet another performance that countered familiarly apocalyptic pronouncements concerning O'Gara, in particular, and Munster in general.

Yet O'Gara's enthralling ability to divide opinion is what makes him such raw material for those of us who are passionate about sport; his forthright honesty is refreshing in an age of predominantly repressed automatons who can barely string a meaningful sentence together.

O'Gara also knows that his words can come back to haunt him and many of his detractors take a dubious pleasure in gleefully triumphing in his despair.

That's why the potential for him to deliver a performance tomorrow that might make him indispensable this summer threatens such an engrossing spectacle.

"You're the hero or you get slated," as he said himself during the Six Nations.

"I don't think that some people can handle that mentally and that's been a strong trait of mine.

"I can take the rough -- and by God there has been some rough times -- but you have to dig in and believe in yourself, keep coming back for more.

"Sometimes it has not been easy, but you appreciate the great days so much."

That determination remains unwavering, as he emphasised moments after Munster sneaked their bonus point so irrepressibly last Sunday night.

"I've had plenty of disappointments with this Munster team, but we're going to fight to the end and that's the message we're sending out."

Only the brave and foolish would back against him.

Irish Independent

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