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.

World Cup Preview: Argentina

Group B Opposition: England, Scotland, Georgia, Romania

Pedigree: The newest rugby superpower, and at this level, it has been at Ireland’s expense. Lyon in 1999 and Adelaide in 2003 were close, but we got panned in 2007. In that respect, we weren’t alone – France were beaten twice, and the extent of the Pumas’ quality in France was illustrated by the air of disappointment that surrounded them only finishing 3rd.

Players to watch: If a Martian landed on Earth and demanded to know what a prop forward was, WoC would put forward the redoubtable Rodrigo Roncero – always fun to watch and a master of the dark arts. Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe provide the class in the backrow, and Santiago Fernandez has been a revelation at Montpellier this year – we hope to see him re-produce his regular season form.  Meanwhile, Leinster fans may even get to see what Mariano Galarza actually does on a rugby pitch.

Good Tournament: Argentina are top seeds in this group, and will plan to beat England, then continue their hex on the French in the quarter-final and reach successive semi-finals.

Bad Tournament: Losing to the Scots, something of a bogey team for Argentina, and going home early.

Prospects: Argentina go into a tournament with respect, for the first time. Four years on from 2007, its hard to credit that virtually nobody had them coming through the group. In the event, they were one of the best teams in the competition, regretably freezing against the Boks.

To an extent, the objective is now different. In 2007, the team played with a controlled nationalistic fervour to show the world they meant business, and demanded to be seen as equals. This time around, the generals of 2007 (with the exception of Pichot and Hernandez) may still be there, but with a new generation being gradually infused, retrenchment is the order of the day. The lack of regular engagements precludes a definite judgement on where they stand, but they seem to be a level below four years ago.

The set-piece still bristles with menace and intent, and the two back-rows mentioned above are among the best around, but the backline isn’t quite together yet. In the halves, Dr Phil is a flaky 10 and Vergallo has yet to fulfil his promise. Ouside those two, its more perspiration than inspiration. As usual, European rugby sustains the Argentinian team and Bustos Moyano and Agulla have impressed since coming North, however, the aptly-named Marcelo Bosch is more typical of the approach. Also, its going to be interesting to see who kicks goals – while Contepomi wouldn’t be regarded as the best under pressure, Bustos Moyano scored 283 points for Montpellier, and nailed many a pressure kick.

The attritionary nature of this pool will suit Argentina’s pack, but having England first may be a disadvantage – last time out they improved as the tournament went on, and the leathering of France in the 3rd place playoff was the most complete display of any team. It’s likely to come down to a Scotland-Argentina showdown for second place here, and Scotland have the misfortune of being first up for the huge Georgians … just before they play the Pumas.

Verdict: Vigourous debate is ongoing at Cordite Towers. Firstly, we both agree that England should take them. Regarding second place, Palla Ovale points to Scotland’s impressive record against the Pumas (better than Ireland, France and England), whereas Egg Chaser sees a much stronger XV taking on a Scotland team harrowed by the Georgians (much like Ireland in 2007) and putting them out of their misery. Egg’s (slightly) greater conviction just carries the day, but NZ will whack and bag them in the quarters.