It's a sad way for Ronan's Ireland career to end but he can be proud of his feats
When I heard on Sunday that Ronan O’Gara had been dropped from the Ireland squad, I was as surprised as everybody else. It was just a sad way for it all to end for him considering what he’d done for Irish rugby over the years.
The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that sadness wasn’t the right emotion here. This is one of the great careers of Irish sport, regardless of what way it finishes up. When I spoke to him later on, I told him that it doesn’t matter if this is how it ends. What matters is what went before.
I don’t want this to sound like an obituary for him. Actually, maybe I do – it’ll annoy him no end. Rog was team-mate of mine for over a decade and has been a friend for as long as I can remember. We sat beside each other in the dressing room and roomed together for years.
We fought like cats and dogs purely out of the way our personalities are but we never held grudges. In the beginning, we would be told to kiss and make up if we had a row at training. But in later years, if he started giving out to me I’d just run away laughing. And the same went vice-versa.
This is a blow to him for sure and he’ll be gutted all this week. It’s a shame actually that Munster don’t have a game this weekend because I’d say he’d love nothing more than to be getting back on the horse.
What always stood out for me about him over the years was his strength of character and how he reacted to adversity. I was someone who always had doubts about myself and who was always worried about this or that going wrong. I never had to look further than Ronan for reassurance.
He was always trying to get me to believe in myself a bit more. He was a winner and he wouldn’t allow me mope or get down on myself if I’d had a setback. Not everybody was able to carry themselves with the huge confidence he had but he was always of the opinion that to get the maximum out of himself, he had to believe in himself.
That rubbed off on everyone, including me. I always admired that ability he had to bounce back, whether it was from a big game where he’d missed a few kicks or where the opposition had kept running down his channel.
Ronan was never one for moping and I can’t see him doing that this week. For one thing, he has four kids running about the house so he won’t have time. But anyway, it wouldn’t be in his nature. He was always the one who brought the most energy to training and team meetings after a defeat.
Putting it right
If we lost a game on a Saturday, he’d be ringing around fellas on the Sunday telling them we’d get stuck in first thing Monday morning and we’d find ways of putting it right. I think he took a kind of pleasure in trying to find a way to fix things for the next game. I love that fire in him. Everybody knows that he never hesitated in speaking up but he knew as well that if he was going to make a fuss about something, he had to be the one to lead the way to back it up.
The fact that he wasn’t the biggest player in the dressing room never stopped him taking on responsibility. He wanted that pressure. For someone like me who had a lot of nervous energy and who could get worked up and worried about things going wrong, that was great to be around.
People looking in from the outside probably have the wrong idea about him. Yes, he’s spiky when he wants to be but I could bring him to any town in Ireland and introduce him to strangers and they’d go away thinking he was great company. There’s no arrogance to him. Confidence, yes. Arrogance, no. If he was arrogant, he’d tell me he was busy any time I asked him to come and do a kicking session with youngsters in Tipperary. He’d think it was beneath him.
I will never forget what he did for me in the 48 hours after I ruptured my cruciate against Sale in 2005. That was the most serious injury of my career and what made it worse the night it happened was that we had no idea how bad it might turn out to be. Not only was I in pain, I was in limbo as well. I knew nothing about cruciate injuries and although everybody was sympathetic and supportive, not everyone would have realised what was going on with me mentally.
To be totally honest about it, I was scared. I was 31 at the time and I was heading into contract negotiations because mine was up at the end of the season. We all had heard of fellas who had their career ended by cruciate injuries and I knew there was no guarantee of anything. All sorts of emotions were going through my head, lots of questions and doubts and fears.
We had lost that game but Rog didn’t spend a minute talking about it. He just kept reassuring me that it would all work out, that I’d come back as fit and strong as ever. I flew back into Cork with him that night and had scan the following day. I stayed with him and his wife Jess overnight in their house and he came with me to the hospital in the morning.
Upbeat and optimistic
He totally put the disappointment of losing the match the previous night to one side and was just there for me. He was upbeat and optimistic and wouldn’t let me mope or get down on myself. It was the action of a real and true friend and I’ve never forgotten it. I was in a very vulnerable state for those 48 hours and he took me under his wing and made sure I got through it okay. Life went on and I got back playing.
This is a different situation but the same principle applies. It’s a shame the way his Ireland career ended and we’d all have liked to see him get an ovation from the Irish fans as he walked off the pitch for the last time. But life goes on and when people talk about him in years to come, nobody will remember this week. They’ll remember all the other weeks.
It is a pity that this will be the way it ends for him and Declan Kidney. They’ve known each other for so long and have been a part of each other’s lives for decades now. It’s a big call and Declan knows that by making it he’s going to draw a lot of attention on himself, which he doesn’t really like doing. In the end, Declan made his decision believing in what’s right for the team and by his own admission Ronan’s form has been patchy.
Their relationship has always been interesting. I think in the beginning people assumed that because they knew each other from the time that Ronan was a schoolboy, they must have been very close. But that wasn’t always the case. They sparked off each other plenty of times over the years and although I don’t believe they’ve finished up on bad terms, I do think it’s a shame it wasn’t handled better.
As long as I’ve known both of them, they’ve challenged each other continually. They’re both men who have strong beliefs and they would have had plenty of rows and arguments. To be honest, Rog would have challenged any coach he’s ever had but it’s fair to say it might have been that bit more spiky between him and Declan because they knew each other so well for so long. Still, it wouldn’t have been easy for Declan to drop him from the squad, no more than it would have been easy over the past few years to drop him from the team.
Ronan is a competitor, the kind of guy who would keep playing until he was 40 if you let him and he’d believe he was worth his place all the way to the end too. For him to have built up 128 caps, won a Grand Slam and gone on three Lions tours is incredible. He’ll be in bad form this week but eventually he will look back and be happy with what he achieved.
It took me a little while after I finished playing rugby to properly realise what the achievement was. I played for Ireland 101 times fewer than Ronan and it wasn’t until I was finished that I gave myself the credit for it.
It’s not alone the caps you get or the trophies you win, it’s the durability of your body and mind to be able to keep going in a pressurised atmosphere for 14 or 15 years. It’s the ability to cope with the ups and downs, to respond to new challenges week-in and week-out.
Ronan did that better than most and he should be proud of it all.