OLDER, wiser and better than ever. That was the positive vibe emanating from Ronan O'Gara at the Irish camp in Queenstown yesterday as the out-half outlined his World Cup goals, individual and collective, with typical forcefulness.
At 34, with 111 Ireland caps and three Lions tours behind him, the Corkman has a glittering CV littered with a host of trophy-winning achievements, ranging from Grand Slams to Triple Crowns, Heineken Cups and Celtic League titles (not forgetting the All-Ireland League trophy he won with Cork Constitution in 1999).
Much to be proud of, but what he cannot dwell upon is a meaningful Irish World Cup campaign and, as he readies himself for his third and final tournament, that is a situation O'Gara is determined to change -- ideally from the position of starting No 10 ahead of Jonathan Sexton.
"There is a perception that I'm sitting on the bench," said O'Gara. "Statistically, it doesn't add up." (O'Gara has started four of the last six internationals.)
"So, from my point of view, I've become really positive and feel I have a big role and I'm important. And so is Johnny, obviously, so it's working out alright . . . and that's not a politician's answer," added O'Gara, stressing that he believes the race for the No 10 jersey is wide open.
"I hope so. That's the way it should be. when you have two good players, if a fellah isn't playing well there's another fellah and in you go, and don't be reading into it about being dropped, or putting your head down."
When Sexton burst onto the international scene with instant impact in 2009, it led to immediate 'changing of the guard' assumptions, reinforced by the new man's consistent excellence for a high-achieving Leinster side.
O'Gara was widely designated for the role of wily 'closer' off the bench, but anyone who has followed his career since he broke through at Munster in the late 1990s should have known he was never going to settle for a secondary position -- and so it has proved.
His form for country and province over the past 12 months, even as Munster struggled in Europe, has been irrepressible. Furthermore, O'Gara has not complained about the unfamiliar situation of not automatically being the main man for Ireland, merely going about making Declan Kidney's out-half selection dilemma as difficult as possible.
And now, as Ireland enter into the ultimate test of the cup rugby O'Gara was brought up on, he knows his level of performance -- even during Ireland's demoralising, four-defeat warm-up campaign -- makes a compelling case for inclusion.
"I was very happy (with August). I had time to reflect coming out here and think about what I want to achieve. It's been good, really, every time I got on the pitch," he said, highlighting his positive contribution to a mixed Six Nations campaign.
He came off the bench to sneak Ireland home against Italy, came on to haul the side back into a position where they could have beaten France and was going well when substituted in Cardiff, before the Welsh fought back to secure a contentious win.
"The Six Nations couldn't have gone much better from my point of view, in terms of the Italy game, we should have beaten France, Sean (Cronin) was unlucky to drop that ball. The Scotland game went well, Wales was alright for 50 minutes -- we were still winning then, not that I'm washing my hands of it (the loss).
"As a 10, I've been lucky with Munster -- you have a platform and a European campaign to launch with. I didn't have that European-wise last year, but the form was really good.
"You have to continuously work on your game and analyse your game, and look for where you can make improvements.
"You always have to have the ability to listen and learn and make improvements. That is what I will definitely continue to do until I am finished playing the game."
Those improvements include O'Gara working hard to expand his attacking game, as he showed with a delightful Phil Bennett-esque shimmy down the right-hand touchline last weekend against England, and he believes he is still getting better.
"It's taken an awful lot of time, not to enjoy it but to express yourself and have a go -- not that I was ever worried about things.
" I'm capable of doing these things; sometimes you get pigeon-holed as being not able to do that, but just go out and play, enjoy yourself. That's exactly the way I'm playing, I'm enjoying the now.
"I'm a better player than 12 months ago and hopefully in six months' time I'll be better again. From my point of view, it's all about the next two months."
And that means helping Ireland to finally hit form at a World Cup, which O'Gara believes is the only way Irish rugby will gain true, global respect.
"It's taken an awful lot of us a fair bit of time to earn respect at European level and it's only when you win European Cups that you deservedly get that respect. At world level we haven't done that and we don't have the respect of people around the world.
"This team disappointed four years ago and in 2003, mentally, we were a bit weak. We were delighted to beat Argentina and then there was a game to be won against Australia, yet we weren't at the pitch mentally to win that.
"This time around, it's driven by the players. A lot of us realise it's our last shot at something big. It's important we go for that, as opposed to finding an excuse and coming home and one club winning a European Cup, that's not good enough. It's limited compensation, because this is a completely different level.
"It's for us to feel content in our own hearts and that comes with winning, being brutally honest about it. There is a big opportunity for us to progress yet it could be humiliating on the other side as well. It's all to play for and that's what excites me."