Rugby: Ireland in unfamiliar territory without O'Gara - and he's missing it all terribly

By Ian Chadband

Irish genius Ronan O'Gara says he'll miss competing. Photo / Getty Images
Irish genius Ronan O'Gara says he'll miss competing. Photo / Getty Images

Something will not seem quite right when the Six Nations kicks off this weekend. After 14 straight seasons of combat, after playing more games and scoring more points than anyone in the championship's history, one of the tournament's monuments, Ronan O'Gara, will be missing - and he is not about to deny he will miss it something rotten.

"Oh, Jeez, yes. I'll miss competing," concedes this grand man of Cork, now immersed in a tough first season of coaching as an assistant at Racing Metro in Paris. "It's that half an hour sitting in a winning dressing room after the game, that's what I'll miss most. Oh, and the all-day drinking session after the final game."

O'Gara gives a broad smile, which is a giveaway in itself. The five-eighths, who was intensity personified in Munster red and Ireland green and who has shouldered more pressure moments in sport than anyone should reasonably be asked to handle, admits he is much more relaxed now his job involves the management of others and not the personal weight of having to carry a nation with a single kick at goal.

"Going back to Lansdowne Rd last November, I was down at pitchside doing a bit of TV before the Australia game when all the boys were warming up. It felt very, very strange," mused the man who amassed 557 points in 63 championship matches for Ireland, steered them to four Triple Crowns and, with his late, late "drop of genius" against Wales in 2009, a first Grand Slam for 61 years.

"Even going into the ground as a now-retired player felt odd because it reminded me how, essentially, I had nearly become institutionalised in rugby as a player. It was the only thing I'd known since I left school. My life for 15 years."

The love affair between "ROG" and the championship had ended in desperate anticlimax last year when, after a dismal performance after coming off the bench against Scotland, he was dropped from the squad for the first time in 13 years.

His utter dismay, as well as the rest of his most trying days over the final four years of a career in gradual decline but interspersed by the odd sparkling high, was captured in a documentary which held Ireland in thrall at the start of the year. O'Gara's pre-match high anxiety, his spikiness and single-mindedness, his gradual eclipse by his rival Jonny Sexton and eventual decision to quit playing last May was all captured in a searingly honest portrayal of one of Ireland's most compelling sportsmen.

In an interview after his 2009 heroics, O'Gara had told me he wanted to be remembered as one of the game's greats but would have to compile a list of achievements that would mean it could not be "open to opinion". Could he now say, five years on, that he had achieved his aim?

On the plus side, there were the astonishing points records in the Heineken Cup and Six Nations and the nine trophies he had helped to win; on the other, a failure to make his mark with the Lions.

"Well, it's very difficult because now if you say you made it, you're seen as a cocky, arrogant git," shrugs O'Gara. "Now I've retired, I can only say I gave it my best shot."

Yet he still has much to contribute to Ireland's present thanks to his link-up with Sexton at Racing.

Now, after chauffeuring Sexton to training every day, the pair get on like a house on fire, says O'Gara. "I realise that we were quite alike."

O'Gara fancies that Ireland, under new coach Joe Schmidt, could win the championship this year.

For both O'Gara and Sexton, the French adventure has been a challenge so far with Racing's expensive multinational mix having struggled to gel, mediocre in mid-table in the Top 14 and dumped out of the Heineken Cup. "A massive culture shock," concedes O'Gara.

Yet nothing has dented his belief. "I think ultimately I will be a good coach."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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