‘Not even Rala could get us talking. Not even the Pope could have mended things’
In this extract from Unguarded: My Life in Rugby, written with Irish Times rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley, Ronan O’Gara talks about his relationship with his rival and team-mate Johnny Sexton
Our relationship started badly. When he took to the pitch in that Munster-Leinster semi-final at Croke Park in 2009 I knew very little about him, if anything at all. He wasn’t really a big name at Leinster even though he had been around the scene for a while. At the time I was delighted to see [Felipe] Contepomi going off because I thought it would weaken the team.
We now know with the benefit of hindsight that it strengthened Leinster. I think it became the making of them, because it gave them a general with balls at 10.
I can still picture Johnny standing over me screaming when they scored a try – clearly a release of frustration. Aside from having to wait for his chance with Leinster, I’d most definitely said something to him as well.
It’s a pity I don’t recall what I said to fire him up, but as we also now know, it doesn’t take much.
For the benefit of our relationship in the future – for the next two years anyway – I have to know what makes him tick. But certainly that scream was him announcing to the world “I’m here, and I’m here to stay”. And fair play to him. That’s what he’s done.
For the next couple of years ours was the trickiest relationship I’ve ever experienced with any player. The good thing about it, looking back, is that while we mightn’t have been pally-pally, the team was getting on.
An outhalf has to have a relationship with everyone in the squad, in different ways, from John Hayes to Brian Carney, with different jokes for different lads. But I would have avoided Johnny and he would have avoided me.
I had my same spot on the bus all the time with the same fellas at the back – Brian, Paulie, Rob – and Johnny was nowhere to be seen, up at the front on the left. There was no possibility of his being drawn into even a general conversation among, say, 10 of us. But over the years he eventually thawed out and came down our end!
Initially, even for kicking practice, it seemed as if he had to go to the dentist or the doctor a lot on those mornings. Typically, Deccie landed the two of us in a room together when the tension was at its height. I just said to myself, “Oh my God, is this for real?”
I’d imagine it was worse for Johnny because I was more senior. I never had such a distant relationship with Humphs. I think it’s always trickier when the younger fella is laying down the law to the more established player.
There were times when it became heated between me and Humphs in training, and heated for a few hours after training. He wanted to show the young fella who was the boss, and I wasn’t prepared to let him think he was.
There was a little bit of that in Johnny too, and we are also two very stubborn fellas. When we were forced to room-share I don’t think he even stayed in the room.
Maybe he did one night, but it was a two-night camp and he definitely wasn’t there for the second night.
When we went for kicking practice, if there was another player around or, say, Taints – kicking coach Mark Tainton – was driving the van, everything was rosy, no problem. But neither myself nor Johnny was going to start a conversation to get the car chatting.
It was worse if Rala [Patrick O’Reilly] was there, because Rala would be in the front, leaving the two of us in the back. At least if there were three of us one would sit in the front and we wouldn’t even have to look at each other. Not even Rala could get us talking. Not even the Pope would have mended things at that stage.
I don’t remember exactly when or how things thawed, but they certainly had by the time of the 2011 World Cup.
Time is a healer in everything. Perhaps typically of the two of us, it was probably played out in print – one of us reading a complimentary comment made by one of us about the other, or something like that.
I can recall seeing one or two remarks that were positive, so I probably returned the compliment – but I’m pretty sure I didn’t instigate it. I suppose the more time you spend with a fella the more you appreciate what kind of person he is.