Sunday 16 June 2019

The Couch: Love and hate collide in fierce resistance to letting go

Ronan O’Gara looks on from a TV studio during the Heineken Cup final
Ronan O’Gara looks on from a TV studio during the Heineken Cup final

Tommy Conlon

As he spoke it became obvious that the man was still doing cold turkey, still suffering the agonies of total withdrawal after a lifelong addiction.

Ronan O'Gara was like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, just short of disappearing down the toilet bowl in search of one last shot of adrenaline, a few more minutes of action on a playing field.

After some 29,000 minutes of top-flight game-time with club and country, spread over 16 seasons, he still wanted one for the road. After 3,700 points on the scoreboard, give or take, he still wanted one last pot at the posts.

"I still feel like I'm gonna play," he says, right at the end of the documentary, "I still feel like there's ten minutes in me for Racing Metro, you know?" This from a 36-year-old father of four who'd publicly announced his retirement in May. "I say it jokingly," he adds, "but I still think the dream is alive! They're there, (saying) 'Rog, the dream is over, forget it!' And I'm there, 'It's not, I could do this!' You know?"

If he's not careful with that kind of talk, they could end up taking him to the vet for the snip, as it were. If only to put him out of his misery, once and for all.

When he's dreaming like this, he says, he also dreams of being 22 again, only this time having the benefit of all that knowledge and experience. "If you knew (then) what you know now, you'd be a good player."

But if he knew then what he knows now, he mightn't have been half the player he was. There's a reason they send young men off to war: full of piss and vinegar, they think they're invincible, they know no fear.

O'Gara was a marvellous subject: moody, complicated, introspective and candid. The film-makers Nathan Nugent and Dave Berry, already with a distinguished portfolio behind them, did an equally marvellous job. Visually and editorially, it was made with discernment and class.

Premiered on RTE last Thursday night, it lived up to the advance publicity. O'Gara's story is well known and there was a risk of stale bread from material that is so familiar. But they avoided a clichéd narrative and skipped quickly across well-worn ground. The Heineken Cups were packaged concisely, without any hoary old recollections from O'Gara. Nor did he resort to boilerplate adjectives when recalling those triumphs.

Instead he came up with this, as those emotional scenes from Cardiff in '06 were relayed in montage: "There was huge collective love for each other," he said, as various Munster players fell into manly, meaty embraces at the final whistle. "You can have all the technical expertise," he continued, "but like, love in sport goes a long way."

And hatred has its place too. Or intense dislike and mutual paranoia. But enough about his relationship with Johnny Sexton. It was fun while it lasted, and regrettably it's all good now.

Of much more interest is his relationship with Declan Kidney. Now there's a complex tango. They go back a long way, all the way to O'Gara's boyhood. The player never bothered much with diplomatic euphemisms or bland generalities. The manager, shrewd and gnomic, deployed them with frustrating skill.

A particular strength of this film was its presence in O'Gara's life as stuff happened and stories unfolded. They were there at the time. Rather than fetching up when his career was done and dusted, they captured his emotions and reflections in real time, as they were churning. It wasn't a look-back in mellow amber, but a rolling diary in the raw.

So when Kidney dropped O'Gara and picked Sexton in November '09, they filmed while he vented. "I've had Declan all my career," he says. And Kidney was very good at motivating a team. "But tactically, and from my (game's) point of view, he has very little role. So for years -- it's not as if I blanked him out, but he doesn't have any impact on my week. I'd always be trying to push standards and push game plans and stuff, and I knew once he had another alternative, he was gonna use him."

You could spend a while picking the bones out of that statement.

O'Gara's fierce resistance to his changing circumstances

dominates the narrative: his need to play, to remain on top, is almost painful. But he is battling against the gravity of age and the ambition of a younger rival. As a story, it is timeless.

The documentary becomes in passing a meditation on this theme.

In his final few seasons he talks frequently about quitting, torn between hanging on and letting go.

In January 2011, Munster are knocked out of Europe by Toulon. "I've had enough," he declares afterwards, voice breaking. "I want to give up, I don't want to play rugby anymore."

A voice off camera asks, "It's that tough?" "Yeah it is," comes the reply, "and it'll be fuckin' worse tomorrow."

Three years later, there are definitely no more tomorrows, not as a player. Unless, perhaps, just maybe, Racing Metro are two points down in a Heineken Cup semi-final, with ten minutes to play.

And in his mind he is back in the pocket, waiting for the ball, ready for the drop goal. He still has that image in his head. "Because you love it so much, it's hard to let go."

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