End of an Era

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.

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  1. Even as Munster fan, I think he was always overrated by the Irish people, while he was a top player, there is no way he was close to the best 3 in the world. in my opinion. He was gifted with some good coaches, who built a system to suit him and the team. His limitations weren’t exposed, had ROG not had that pack how good would he have been? I think it would have been close to Dan Parks level in reality, although I suspect many will disagree.

    While he didn’t have a running threat for most of his career, his purple patch showed he could do something in between 04-07, he has something like 16 tries for Ireland more then the likes of Stephen Jones and Wilkinson have I think, he did offer something at times, and was a part of some of our better backplay under Eddi.e

    • Balderdash!!

      O’Gara is up there with Carter and Wilko as one of the best and most consistent 10’s in the last 10-15 years. To question how good he’d be without a system or forward pack to suit him is disingenuous; it was purely because he was so good at what he did that the gameplan was consistently tailored to his skillset.

      He was one of the best passers and definitely the best kicker out of hand ever in rugby.

      Yes he had his limitations but as the blog says, his sheer will to win meant these limitations were made inconsequential when he was at the peak of his powers.

      Yes he should have bowed out after RWC 2011 but I’m happy to remember him as he was at his peak rather than the last 1 – 2 yrs.

      Top class rugby player, unbelievable mental fortitude and a fantastic servant to Ireland and Munster. I hope he enjoys and succeeds in his coaching ambitions.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  May 23, 2013

        On the pitch..meh..above ordinary for sure, never top class. However mentality, attitude and demeanor and rugby brain were all top class to hide, or downplay his glaring shortcomings. The only things I liked about O’Gara was his attitude and arrogance, coupled with his self belief. From winding up Felipe to shoving his hands in his pockets while waiting to meet the queen for example, he was an a individual amongst rugby automatons(at least in a personality sense,as his play was robotic and uninspired).

        While Dricos peak as a wind up merchant was discussing whether tomatoes belonged in a fruit salad, O’Gara garnered more publicity by merely sitting on the bench smirking while JS was on the field. O’Gara is the poster boy for unapologetic player of his generation. 07 WC hubris from everyone aside, he has always been foremost in stating his belief that he, Munster and Ireland are the best. Young Irish rugby players should look to emulate his egoism and unwavering self belief, couple that with players of even half of Dricos talent and we might beat Un Zee at some point. Hopefully his legacy is a generation of stroppy ego maniacs who think they are the best in the world and that makes up for any talent shortcomings they have, which will enable us to finally step up to the plate at international level.

      • ROG was a great player, but he was never anywhere close to DC, maybe Wikinson, O’Gara was given a platform to succeed and he did his best to get us to win. He got a credit for a lot of games that he won on his own, true in some cases but not in most for me. A very goo player, who will rightly go down as one of Ireland’s greatest. But in the last ten years in the world? He languishes behind DC, Wiko, Larkham and probably Stephen Jones in truth.

        He worked his ass off to get to where he is, but a guy with his limitations will languish behind a fair few people in terms of overall greatness for me. Grateful for all the great days he has given us certainly, Sexton will fin it tough to live up to his achievements I think, that shows you that despite his shortcomings, “ROG was a winner”

    • Sound Steve

       /  May 23, 2013

      I think the top 3 is probably a bit of an overstatement but he was certainly the best tactical kicker I’ve ever seen and he has to be one of the best clutch goal kickers the game has seen. He didn’t have a rounded skillset anyway and that’s why he never started for the Lions ahead of the unexceptional Stephen Jones.

      Under rated as I believe Dan Parks is/was, I prefer Jonny Wilkinson as a comparison and I would take ROG over JW any day of the week.

  2. Probably should don a helmet and flak jacket before pouring scorn on one of Cork’s favourite sons, but anyway:

    I’m not O’Gara’s biggest fan, but I think any comparison to Roy Keane is unfair to ROG.

    I’d contend ROG’s apparent (outward facing) self-obsession masked a genuine team player; whereas Keane’s public entreaties to teammates ,followed inevitably by suspensions/controversies/walkouts/etc. would suggest the exact opposite.

    The proof of that particular pudding will be if O’Gara’s coaching career contrasts with Keane’s abject failure in his.

  3. Spice

     /  May 23, 2013

    Any bets that he will tog out for a game next year at some stage? I can imagine that in the back of his mind he’ll constantly be thinking that he can ‘still show what he can do!’ I’d love to see it, car-crash or super-star it would be hilarious.
    I think people focus on him being ‘behind the pack’ and that he ‘wouldn’t be half the player without them.’ It’s hard to speculate on that as he was behind a good pack in Munster for most of his career, but he was behid pretty much the exact same pack for Ireland (and they were not nearly as impressive at international level) and he still did quite well. He has also been behind a fairly average pack at Munster recently and still churned outr a select few good performances (notably the last 2 HC games). ROG was a class act whether he was behind the pack or not…plenty of outhalves were behind monster packs and the did not achieve what he did.

    • He can’t tog out in France or he will lose his tax exemption for finishing his playing career in Ireland.

      • Spice

         /  May 23, 2013

        Not if he isnt contracted as a player…in injury circumstances it is permitted for coaching staff to temporarily register as a player.

  4. While I appreciate that O’Gara’s performances for Munster were perhaps where his legend was built, I’d have to take issue with the idea that his “best days…were saved for the Munster jersey”. ’09 wasn’t his finest Six Nations, but it’s hard to look past nailing the game-winning drop goal for a Grand Slam. Even leaving aside the dramatic moments like the crossfield kicks of Horgan and Bowe, and the drop goals and penalties to win and keep Ireland in matches, his kicking from hand was a huge part of Ireland’s attack at a time when one of our most powerful offensive weapons was putting John Hayes putting Paul O’Connell in the air. I realise that in recent years it has become a little unfashionable to express appreciation for the kind of territorial rugby that was for so long Ireland’s bread and butter, and Rog’s stock-in-trade, but the combination of his touchfinders and the dominant lineout was as much the foundation for Ireland’s success under O’Sullivan and Kidney as was Leinster’s dynamic backline.

    While he might never have been as appreciated without the pack he had, the same can be said of almost any player – it’s a team game, and when it comes to winning, you’re only as good as your teammates. Obviously we have a tendency to narrativise what happens on the pitch, and his personality and role led him to receiving a status that papered over his flaws, but that doesn’t take away from what a key cog he was.

  5. One of the rocks around which my rugby childhood was built. I’m excited to see new talent at 10, but I doubt anyone will ever fill the Ronan O’Gara-shaped hole in Munster and Irish rugby. Small man, great stature.

    Some of the greatest moments in recent Irish rugby have Rog’s indelible stamp on them. The drop-goals were the most sensational, with Wales 2009 and Northampton 2011 the most memorable of them all, and they testify to his ability and nerve as a “clutch” player, as you say yourself. He had other individual moments of greatness too: the unbelievably cheeky quick-tap try against South Africa and the 20-metre break and try against Leinster in the 2006 semi-final stand out.

    But there were other days when he grabbed hold of games from the first whistle and never let go (enabled by a series of high-quality packs in front of him). The day that stands out the most for me was the November 2002 match against Australia. On a miserable, windy, wet day, Rog tormented the Aussies all day long with high balls and surgical kicking to the corner, and was immaculate off the kicking tee. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a display of tactical kicking like it, and I doubt I will again. I imagine there was no out-half in the world that back threes would hate playing against as much as Rog on his day. You’re right to point out that he never had quite as much of an impact at the very highest level as he might have had, but I imagine there are many South Africans and Australians who will remember him as a great player, instrumental in turning Ireland from whipping boys into a team that frequently beat them in Dublin.

    There’s a tendency among Leinster and Ulster fans especially, who had and have their own heroes, to downplay O’Gara’s overall ability. (Conversely, of course, Munster fans me included probably have some blind spots.) Most of that is rewriting history. I genuinely do think he was one of the best 10s on the planet for a substantial period of time. His tackling was dreadful (although not for want of bravery), but he had almost everything else you want from your out-half. His passing, while not on a par with Larkham or Carter, was outstanding by most standards. Think back to all those tries from O’Driscoll created by passes from O’Gara; Rog setting up BOD for his classic outside breaks against Scotland and France are the ones that I remember best, with perfect fast, flat, wristy passes out in front of the man attacking space. And while his lack of a running game was obvious and repeatedly exploited in latter years, he has a fair few tries to his name. The 6 Nations’ top try scorer in 2007, for instance. And finally, his kicking game… Well, I don’t know what more can be said. It was the best in the business.

    Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.

  6. The best thing about Rog was his long list of shortcomings.

    A waif of a man with no pace and no strength – and yet he not only made it to the top of the rugby union tree, but stayed there for over a decade. This huge deficit in athletic gifts is really what kept him from ever being a legend and/or dominant individual on the world stage (unlike, say, O’Driscoll and O’Connell – mighty men, yes, but seriously gifted athletes too) but it makes his achievements all the more impressive.

    No-one epitomises the (not-really-true) cliché that RU is a game for everyone that this fella.

    On the two Lions tours where he had a real chance of starting a test, he fell behind Stephen Jones (himself an underrated player, in my view), which maybe illustrates that the physical shortcomings were an issue at the highest heights – although his kicking game as a package is right up there – but “serial winner” is the tag that will stick.

    Not only did he want to win, and mostly got what he desired, he also wanted to be the person on the spot when crunch time came. Great stuff. That he was able to achieve all this despite not having the advantages of speed or power enjoyed, in some combination, by virtually every other pro rugby player around the world is testament to the guy.

    As for leaving behind the “sure we gave it a lash, lads, well done, it’s my round” attitude – you’re quite right. There have been several Irish players of the last decade explicitly keen to shed this tag, but none of them quite as much as Rog. Ligind, yes, but also a legend.

    Chapeau, M. O’Gara, enjoy telling JS what to do now the two of you are no longer in competition!

  7. zdm

     /  May 23, 2013

    One of ROG’s great contributions to Irish rugby was in helping to rid Ireland of the plucky losers mentality – I remember him in the 6N circa ’07/’08 bawling out the forwards after a lost scrum had lead to a try – any other fly half for any other team would have been slapped down but the Irish pack, with all its stars and big personalities seemed truly embarrased to have let him, and thereby Ireland, down.

    As for criticising his one-dimensional, ball-booting playing style, this tactic was the dominant style in the late 90’s/early noughties and not only worked for Munster but also did for the Leicester and was the style of world cup winners & finalists for over a decade and none could execute it as well as ROG.

    I have no particular reason to love ROG – particularly as I came to rugby as an Ulster fan in the big-Humph era and felt he was the better 10, but in his pomp, ROG was utter class and to say otherwise is disingenuous in my opinion.

  8. Excellent piece lads. Personally I think Rogs passing games is always ignored. it set him apart from a lot fly halfs he had as good a pass of both hands as anyone and in his pomp he stood so flat it was a lot of center’s dream.

    People say Rog is successful because coaches built their teams around him? That is what all coaches do! Your ten is your QB if he isn’t able to carry out the coaches plan then it won’t work!

    Another really good point on Rog is when he was 20 he was not the obvious star. indeed Jermeny Stauton was ahead of him at that time. Just shows you how crucial mental strength really is in the modern game.

  9. Yossarian

     /  May 23, 2013

    He would have been he perfect 10 for the South Africans,i’m sure they would have killed for him! they would have been more successful with him controlling things where they had the gargantuan pack, and they haven’t had a 10 since Henry Honiball retired.
    In an irish context his lack of a running threat combined with the lack of threat from 9 with stringer put added pressure on our outside backs for years.A limited player with an outstanding kicking game who suited the kicking game that dominated world rugby for so long. Still a better 10 than most nations could boast about(aforementioned SA, Scotland,England post-wilko,France) but i do feel he is over hyped in Irish circles. If he was as good as people say why did he never start a lions test match?

    • For the same reason that Rory Best probably won’t, but Andy Titterell did, and one of Hibbard, Hartley, or Tom Youngs will.

      • Ugh, sorry, Lee Mears. I seem to have lost the ability to distinguish mediocre, under-sized English hookers from each other.

  10. Jimbob

     /  May 23, 2013

    His try vs France in Croker stands out for me (2007 I think). I was never his biggest fan and always thought it was a shame he didn’t have any competition for the Ireland jersey for such a long time but he gave us some great days and great moments.

  11. ROG will certainly and deservedly go down as one of Munster and Ireland’s greatest. On a world level Carter is different class and Wilko gets the nod ahead of ROG for me based on his defense

  12. ehhweasel

     /  May 23, 2013

    No Wilko in defence but I think it’s a little unfair that he’s being dismissed as a complete weasel. There are a fair few memorable hand-off tries, vs Wales for example or Leinster

  13. Not Michael Bent

     /  May 24, 2013

    I am incredibly biased as I have never gotten over my disgust at him for announcing his retirement immediately after the win against Oz at the 2011 World Cup (keeping the narrative on ROG), so this question may come across as slightly bitter, but honestly, are any Munster supporters out there annoyed/let down by the manner of his announcing his retirement?

    Announcing it by announcing his new job just seems ungrateful to me. Do a press conference, do an interview with Conor George, do something for your fans. Then announce the new job the following Monday.

    • Krustie92

       /  May 24, 2013

      It was only a matter of time till he announced his retirement anyway. And given the number of crucial plays he’s made and penalties he’s kicked over the year, I think any bitterness would be quickly let go following a quick reminisce on his career.

    • Nope. Wish him all the best. It was time to go, and we all knew it was coming after the Clermont match.

    • @Completebore

       /  May 27, 2013

      I thought that the announcement was strange at the time, but while this may be a generous view, it may be that a player who was stalked by an incredible amount of spiteful rumour over the years did not want to leave any gap in the narrative for the bar-stoll bs-ers to fill whoever they saw fit.

  14. Ronaldo

     /  May 24, 2013

    ROG was the right man in the right place at the right time. His style of play suited Munster to a tee. A big pack, kept on the front foot by ROG’s exceptional terratorial kicking game. Was he one of the Worlds best? Maybe not but he was certainly one of the most effective. Any mention of his name and I get the vision of him kicking that drop goal in Cardiff. Amazing memories. Hope his coaching career is as successful as his playing carees was!

  15. Premier Warrior

     /  May 24, 2013

    Classic blogger revisionism, spend years mocking ‘Radge’ and those who championed him and the second he retires, wheel out the embarrassingly fawning (‘apple cheeked young Corkman’ ‘his record speaks for itself’, Racing ‘have a great fly-half on their books, and another in their coaching team’) fluff piece. A far cry from the abuse that was being doled out last February. This site is characterised by side swipes and unfunny mockery, so be it, but if that’s your chosen path at least be conistent, the alternative is cringe-inducing.

    • zdm

       /  May 24, 2013

      In Feb, the WoC boys criticised the Irish management for continuing to pick ROG when he wasn’t up to task and criticised ROG for looking like he couldn’t be arsed when he was picked – both of these criticisms were valid and shared by many beyond this blog and it’s arm-chair commentators.

      They didn’t criticise his past achievements as a Munster or Ireland player at this time and indeed this article contains comments on ROG’s “refusal to go away quietely” so to say there is no consistency in approache and opinion is also wide of the mark.

    • labrecha1

       /  May 25, 2013

      Ugh! Inaccurate and hasty comment.

      • labrecha1

         /  May 25, 2013

        ROG’s kicking out of hand was his best attribute, there is a certain revisionism when It comes to his kicking from the tee, he went through some inconsistent patches in this regard especially leading up to the Lions 07 tour. In fact I thought he became more consistent off the tee as he got older. He had a very good pass, a woeful tackle and little pace but he did have an eye for an opportunity. His ‘I can do this attitude’ was incredible particularly for Munster and that grand slam winning kick but did sometimes backfire, for example his Lions 07 cameo and his obvious influence on Kidney with regard to the 10 slot, when it was obvious Sexton should have been decided upon once and for all for the greater good of the team.

        • Seiko

           /  May 27, 2013

          Accuracy – lol. O’Gara was top points and top try scorer in the 6Ns in ’07. There was no Lions Tour in ’07 (it was in ’09, where O’Gara’s kicking from the tee wasn’t great, but he recovered to nail some important kicks!)

          As for Sexton – he lost his starting spot in the last world cup because his kicking from the tee was something like 40%.

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