As if to have one last laugh at his ability to become the story, the news that Ronan O’Gara had announced his retirement from playing and his move into coaching on the night Leinster won the Amlin Vase was deliciously ironic. For ever since the apple-cheeked young Corkman came onto the scene, he has resolutely been able to bend the narrative to his will.
The triumvirate that guided Ireland to the new dawn of Triple Crown success and then the Grand Slam was Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rog. BOD and POC were captains of country and province respectively and, in that capacity, their public utterances were largely banalities for our VBFs in the print media. Rog, on the other hand, felt no constraints to stay on-message – his confident, chippy and proud communiques were always newsworthy, and you got the impression that better represented the feelings inside the Munster and Ireland camps. It has helped to make him the most divisive sportsman in Ireland since Roy Keane (another chippy Corkman). While the likes of O’Connell, O’Driscoll and The Bull are easy for the public to love for their bravery and charm, O’Gara will never have the same unanimous adoration; he gets people’s goat up, and probably doesn’t care that much about it.
When Rog went on Sky the week before a crucial HEC game in Leicester and announced he “would not accept” that English players were better than Irish ones, it was a call to arms – and one he backed up on the pitch with a 50 metre penalty in pouring rain to win the game. We always felt this very modern Irish desire to break free of the “gave it 100%” brigade and measure success in medals was something O’Gara elucidated very well, and his contribution to the noughties Silver Generation was as important as the two big leaders. The fact that the willowy fly-half spent large portions of his international career pursueing an ongoing vendetta with one the toughest teams in world rugby – Argentina – was indicative of his bloody-mindedness.
Rog’s Ireland career was book-ended by back-and-forth rivalries for the 10 shirt – with David Humphreys from 00-03, then with Johnny Sexton from 09-12. What was notable about both was that O’Gara refused to accept being second best – while Humph looked a better suited player to the backline Ireland possessed, it was Rog who went to Eddie and simply demanded to always play, and Humphreys who retired from international rugby in frustration at collecting splinters.
Then when Sexton broke through, it was O’Gara who doggedly refused to go away quietly into the night, gaining oxygen from the rivalry and feeding off his coaches lingering doubts over Sexton to elbow his way to the 10 shirt for the RWC11 quarter-final. Getting selected for that game was the winning of the battle, but the game itself was the losing of the war. Wales ruthlessly exposed his by now limited game, and ROG never started another game for Ireland.
While his status in Ireland and at Heineken level is assured, there is no point pretending Rog didn’t have a great record on the highest stages of all – he went on three Lions tours but never started a Test, and his role in the second Springbok test in 2009 was rather ignomininious, even if being boshed by Jacque Fourie is excused by having sustained a big hit shortly before. At World Cup level, it never quite happened either – even aside from the horrendous experience that was 2007, the 2003 and 2011 were not without their moments, but both ended with a whimper, having been selected over his rivals on both occasions.
His best days, though, were saved for the Munster jersey, and it was in that shirt that he almost seemed most comfortable. When he endured difficult times with Ireland, it was back with Munster where he was put back together. This ws most after the World Cup in 2007; O’Gara had given his worst ever performances for an abject Ireland, but returned to form quickly at Munster and won the Heineken Cup. It was a remarkable transformation. It happened again this year; ROG looked like a pub player for Ireland, ultimately forcing Kidney to turn to rookies instead of him. He seemed finished, but managed to deliver two outstanding performances for Munster in the subsequent Heineken Cup knockouts.
For all the extreme views that O’Gara seemed to inspire in people, there is little doubt he maximised his talents through hard work and no little skill. He had his limitations, notably his weak defending and lack of running threat and pace. But what made him a great was his ability to make big games bend to his will in spite of those limitations. In a clutch situation, there were few better. His record speak for himself, and, as someone who has met the man outside rugby on a couple of occasions, his public persona bears little resemblence to the well-spoken, thoughtful and intelligent person that he is. We think that not only will he ensure he succeeds as a coach, but his meeja utterances will reflect those personality traits of honesty and incisiveness, making him a relative rarity in Irish rugger circles.
He has given us a finale that nobody saw coming – disappearing into the Parisian sunset arm in arm with Jonny Sexton. It’s tempting to see only the funny side, and imagine Jonny Sexton rolling his eyes and cursing that he will simply never get out of the shadow of the chippy Corkman. One can picture Jonny opening the curtains in his Parisian apartment only to reveal Ronan O’Gara waiting for him with his kicking tee. But in fact it’s almost certainly an outstanding coup by Racing Metro. They have a great fly-half on their books, and another in their coaching team. By all accounts, Sexton and O’Gara get on well, and have a productive relationship. They’re ultimately not that dissimilar; both are cranky, have collosal self-belief and are serial winners.