Rugby books of the year
Big beasts Johnny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara are just as compelling in print
Ronan O’Gara (right), with Joe Schmidt and Shane Horgan.
On the rugby front, it was a year for the big beasts. And few come bigger on this landscape than Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton. Or should that be Johnny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara? Even now, with armistice long declared between the pair, you pause before naming one ahead of the other. What an odd tumbling for the dice to take that two strangers should come to have lives so inextricably intertwined.
Naturally enough, the rancour that once existed between them is a subject that neither avoids in Unguarded (O’Gara) or Becoming A Lion (Sexton). Some of the insights into their early days together (or apart, if you prefer – and they did) are pretty funny to read at this remove.
Like the time, as outlined by O’Gara, that Declan Kidney tried to solve the problem by making them room together. As far as the older man remembers, Sexton made his excuses and found alternative sleeping arrangements for at least one of the two nights they were due to spend in each other’s company.
Or Sexton’s recall of being ever-so slightly suspicious when O’Gara rang to congratulate him on his performance in the 2011 Heineken Cup final. A lovely touch, he thought at first. But then again, with Munster and Leinster due to meet the following week in the Magner’s League final, was it really?
There is, of course, far more to the two books than when they think and thought of each other. Neither is strictly an autobiography, more a quick snapshot of them and where they stand at the end of 2013.
Unguarded (Transworld) by O’Gara and Gerry Thornley, is probably the more compelling of the two. Since it’s his second book, there’s no schooldays/childhood stuff to wade through and it’s right down to business. Though the sub-title is ‘My Life In Rugby’, he’s clearly conscious not to overlap too much with what was in the first book.
His life is different now. Retired, relocated, grabbing at his first fistfuls of rope on the climb to becoming a coach. He isn’t shy about the stated aim of the next few years in France – one day, he wants to be back at Munster with a whistle around his neck. Whether he makes it or not, you have to admire the stones it takes to set out his stall so early.
But then, it’s entirely in keeping with how he played. You don’t need to read the book to know that the greater the pressure in a situation, the readier O’Gara was to take hold of it. It’s a theme he comes back to time and again here, whether it be for Munster or for Ireland.
He liked to train at 80 per cent intensity so as to leave himself another 20 to find in a match. As Racing Metro kicking coach, he watches Sexton take 16 practice kicks before a game but writes that his preference was to take a maximum of eight. Take 16 and you give yourself leeway to miss a couple. Take eight and you put pressure on yourself to make them all.
Becoming A Lion (Penguin) by Sexton and Peter O’Reilly tells just as interesting a story about just as interesting a player. At one point, Sexton refers to Brian O’Driscoll’s contention that the reason the two number 10s didn’t chime for so long is that they’re so similar. Unwittingly, Sexton spends a lot of his book confirming O’Driscoll’s theory.
A diary of the 12 months from August 2012 onwards, the book reveals Sexton to be, by his own admission, a moody sort – often excessively so.
If there’s a weakness to the book, it’s purely down to the format. Diaries almost always fall foul of this – not every day can be a whizz-bang but once you commit to the idea, you have to go with it.
On the flipside, when Sexton has something to say or a story to tell, you won’t want to leave the book out of your hands.
Rala – A Life In Rugby (Hachette) by Patrick O’Reilly and John O’Sullivan is something completely different, albeit with a lot of the same characters popping up throughout. Patrick ‘Rala’ O’Reilly is the Irish team’s faithful bagman, a one-off and someone who is clearly very dear to everyone involved there.
If all you read in this book were the testimonials from the likes of O’Driscoll, Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and more, it would still be well worth the look. But Rala’s story rolls along at a lovely pace in-between times and shines a light behind the scenes of not just Ireland but the last two Lions tours as well that no player or coach would ever think to.