O'Gara synonymous with last-ditch feats of escapology


ON RUGBY:With each passing week, the 2013 Six Nations feels like the end of an era and now, with Ronan O’Gara’s exclusion from an Irish squad for the first time in 13 seasons, the feeling has been reinforced. Time waits for no man indeed, and nor does it wait for a generation.

The apparent demise of O’Gara’s Test career may yet prove premature, but for all the protestations to the contrary by Les Kiss and Mick Kearney yesterday, Sunday’s squad announcement probably does mark the end of O’Gara’s Test career.

Nor has there been a more productive Irish rugby career in terms of Test caps and Test points. O’Gara is, veritably, a legend in his own playing career. He will, fittingly, forever be remembered as the man with ice in his veins and the technical skills to deliver the match-winning drop goal in the Millennium Stadium four years ago which delivered Ireland’s only Grand Slam in the last 65 years.

O’Gara has become synonymous with last-ditch feats of escapology over his illustrious career, and understandably so, for never in the history of the game has one player won so many matches with virtually the last kick of the game. It says everything about his drive and personality that O’Gara assuredly welcomed the pressure and attention. He wanted it and thrived on it.

No Irish outhalf has ever had a better or more complete kicking game, be it off the “tee”, drop goals, long raking one-bounce touch finders, deft, perfectly-weighted grubbers (Christian Cullen and others will testify to that) or crosskicks. Shane Horgan, a beneficiary with that defining try against England at Croker when Rog also kicked 21 points, would be amongst many who would verify that.

All-round skills set

But O’Gara possessed a wonderful all-round skills set, be it with that cultured right boot or the great hands that could pick passes up off his shoelaces, or deliver long, flat passes off either hand. Ironically, O’Gara had shown signs of a return to form with Munster in their anti-climactic draw with the Ospreys last Saturday, which suggests this decision was coming before the weekend and was the result of the Murrayfield performance.

O’Gara has been in a difficult place this season, what with hopes of a fourth Lions tour ebbing away, Munster adapting to a redesigned game under a new coaching ticket, unresolved negotiations for a new contract after the conclusion of this season and, most of all perhaps, a desire to do too much when introduced off the bench. As ever, there has been some wild speculation as to Declan Kidney’s motives for this decision, as with preferring Paddy Jackson to start at Murrayfield or passing on the captaincy baton from Brian O’Driscoll to Jamie Heaslip, such as an apparent attempt to ingratiate himself with his IRFU paymasters. Most likely, the decision is simply in response to the latest flawed display off the bench by O’Gara and Ian Madigan’s continuing good form.

After their long association together through PBC, Munster and Ireland, Kidney’s call to O’Gara on Sunday – when the player was apparently with his wife Jessica and their kids and so he rejected the offer to meet up – cannot have been easy for either man.

At just over 13 stone, or 83kg, for O’Gara to achieve what he has achieved in a sport which has increasingly become a land of giants, is a tribute to not just his talent, but also his professionalism and durability. He has made little secret over the years of his admiration for Roy Keane, and like Keane it looks like he will not be allowed to call time as he would have liked.

Munster contract

Like David Humphreys, who retired from Test rugby in 2006 aged 34, but played on with Ulster for two more seasons, regardless of whether he appears in green again O’Gara should be granted another Munster contract if he feels up to it. He still has something to offer.

Like Keane, O’Gara has also been gold dust in front of a microphone or a dictaphone. Like Keane, he is highly intelligent, thoughtful, intense and opinionated, but not remotely shy about expressing his opinion. He also has a wonderful, usually dry sense of wit. When he granted an audience during Ireland’s week in Queenstown, in the glassed restaurant of the team hotel with a panoramic view of Wakatipu Lake, framed by sun-kissed, snow-covered mountains, he maintained Queenstown and all its activities “doesn’t mean anything to me. The week of Test matches my mindset [is] I could be in Cork.”

Like Keane, you’d wonder how tolerant he could be if coaching lesser players one day but, failing that, he would certainly make an outstanding pundit.

PS: It was with great sadness the rugby writing fraternity learned of Seán Diffley’s passing. The Lansdowne Road press box won’t be the same without him. With his wry take on things, Diffo always seemed to keep sports journalism, his own role in it, and rugby in particular, in perspective.

In the aftermath of England’s victory over the All Blacks last autumn, he signed off by observing: “I would rank the England display as the best I’ve ever seen from them and a performance that, if repeated (big question) would make them favourites for a Grand Slam.”

Could be quite a forecast to sign off on. Like the great Frank Keating, Seán was a legend of “our” game. RIP Diffo.

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