Evergreen O'Gara will not go quietly into night


The Munster outhalf knows his side are in for one hell of a game. After all, Leinster are not European champions for nothing, writes GERRY THORNLEY

MUNSTER HAVE won the last two meetings with Leinster at Thomond Park. This almost bears repeating because it’s as if Munster still believe they’re playing catch-up. Perhaps this is in part because tomorrow’s corresponding clash at the beginning of April last year ended a painful five-match losing streak against their fiercest foes. But there’s one other reason above all others. Leinster are European champions.

Mantra-like, that’s how Tony McGahan refers to tomorrow’s opponents, and this is also why they constitute “ideal preparation” for Munster’s most important of three derbies on successive weekends against Ulster a week hence. “Because we’ll be challenged in every department of the game,” says Ronan O’Gara, whose only defeat in 10 starts for Munster this season was against Leinster.

“They’re the best and they’re European champions and they are that for a reason. They have a really simple game plan that they stick to and they’re very good at; kind of like Wales. I think no matter what the result is you always know what Wales are going to do, but what makes them successful is that they probably do it longer and harder than other teams, and that’s what they (Leinster) do.”

O’Gara accepts this latest head-to-head is “dimmed” because they both have bigger games next weekend. “There’s no second chance the following week. This is a league. The following week is knock-out rugby, and that’s the good thing about the team this year; we have adjusted to that, whereas probably the season previously it was an area we let ourselves down. Always in Munster the Heineken Cup is the pinnacle and we peaked for those games, but last season – maybe it was just me thinking that – but it felt like every game was treated the same. I know we’re professionals, but you can’t really treat the European games the same as the Rabo games. There has to be an uplift.”

What’s made this season’s return of six wins from six in the Euro pool stages so impressive is that there has been a very obvious changing of the guard, with nine players making their Heineken Cup debuts.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries throughout the season but it hasn’t been mentioned and people have come in and put their stamp on it; Conor (Murray), Donnacha Ryan has been a big player for us this season, (Simon) Zebo has been fantastic and BJ (Botha) has been a massive signing because we struggled in the scrum last season.

“As everyone in Irish rugby knows,” says O’Gara with a knowing chuckle, “the scrum is king and it starts in the frontrow. Rugby is a fight and that’s the first fight, and it probably dilutes the more you go back. The numbers one to eight are the key positions and that hasn’t changed. Peter O’Mahony has been a big player, James Coughlan has been fantastic. We need quality coming through and it is coming through.”

It helps when you have a few wise oul’ heads on the tiller too, such as the all-time highest points scorer in the League (849 points), the Heineken Cup (1287), not to mention the Six Nations (551). Along with four of the new bloods, O’Gara and Paul O’Connell were the only two members of the starting line-up with 50 or more caps in the cup in that truly epic 50-phase drive and you-know-who’s match-winning drop goal in the opener against Northampton.

With significant help from stalwarts off the bench, it was as if the baton was being passed on to the next generation. Their season took off, whereas Northampton’s imploded for a while, Chris Ashton admitting to O’Gara after the recent Twickenham game that “we didn’t move on”.

“It was hugely important,” recalls O’Gara of that November night. “I will never forget that night. It was incredible. And to get an opportunity like that, and to deliver, you can live with two years of disappointment for something like that because it was 84 minutes and to be able to produce, both mentally and physically, gives you huge confidence. And then to repeat it the following week (against Castres) gives you self-belief.

“You have to take positives out of that as a player and that’s what I’ve done. But to do that as a team spoke volumes for the people in the jersey and that’s always what we’ve been brought up on in Munster. You’re a person in the jersey, and not a player.”

Confidence? Self-belief? As if O’Gara ever lacked it, but of course he’s human and there’s been lulls too. But he was never going to go quietly into the night, preferring instead to rage against the dying of the light.

After a personally “frustrating” Six Nations, he maintains that physically and mentally he couldn’t be in a better place, with Jessica due to give birth to a fourth child in July to accompany twins Molly and Rua, and JJ.

The twins have already invited people to their fourth birthday, including Jonny Sexton after he gave them chocolate eggs in the Shelbourne. “That’s a myth not getting on with him,” O’Gara states emphatically.

But like all others tomorrow, it’ll be full-on for 80. And the rage still burns. He ain’t finished yet.