Looking for a last-ditch winner? Call Rog

 

RUGBY:STAND UP and Fight, and Until the Final Bell indeed. In a tournament that pours out the drama as if on tap (though you could never bottle it) no team has patented last-ditch dramatics, especially at their Thomond Park fortress, more than Munster, while no player in the game’s history has assumed this responsibility more than Ronan O’Gara – and no one has delivered more than the Cork maestro.

However, at the summit of a pulsating weekend, even by theirs and his standards this was a bit special. With 77 minutes gone and a scrum inside the Northampton half, Munster were trailing in a cracking contest by 21-20.

Not only were their Heineken Cup prospects seriously imperiled, but coming after last season’s failure and the Challenge Cup defeat to Harlequins, so too was the mystique they’d built up with a home record second to none.

The fat lady was clearing her throat and not for the first time, Munster were staring into the abyss. But it’s when they stare into that abyss that Munster find themselves. To witness that 41-phase drive which culminated in O’Gara’s 40 metre-plus drop goal was to behold something that almost defied belief. You get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Coming after the World Cup exit, the sidelining of Brian O’Driscoll and then Connacht being cruelly denied even a bonus point at Harlequins on Saturday, thus was completed a restorative, unbeaten day for Ulster, Leinster and Munster, after all recovered from losing positions, with the three outhalves central to it all.

First there was Ian Humphreys’ match-winning try to score all his side’s points in their 16-11 win over Clermont, followed by Jonathan Sexton’s nerveless last-kick penalty to secure a 16-all draw in Montpellier and then O’Gara’s coup de grace.

Those three scores were worth an additional seven group points to the three teams, and amounted to a combined swing of 15 points across the three matches.

If Munster are still one of Europe’s top dogs several years from now we may well regard Saturday as a landmark day, the day when the baton was passed on from one generation to the next. A relative shell of the side that rolled their sleeves up in an equally titanic but far less fluctuating 12-9 win over Northampton two years ago, three of Munster’s recent academy products were making their Heineken Cup debuts while Paul O’Connell and O’Gara were the only starting players who had 50-plus tournament caps.

“We’ve a lot of injuries at the moment and we’re in a small bit of transition as well,” admitted O’Connell afterwards. “I think it was the first time we haven’t had either Wally (David Wallace), Axel (Anthony Foley) or Quinny (Alan Quinlan) playing for us for 16 years in the backrow in the Heineken Cup so I think for the young guys to come through and be as dogged as they were and win a dog fight like that – albeit we made a lot of mistakes – yeah, I would be very proud.

“I guess at times in the last few years we haven’t had it,” he added, referring to that attitude. “I think today was a great win for us. We’ll look at a lot of things on the video and there’s an awful lot of work to do between now and the Castres game, but I think today was a real dogged kind of Cup win.

“I’m very proud of the lads and their attitude. It’s an important mentality to have, to win those games and we had a good few young guys in the team today; guys who haven’t been there and won European Cups and won those tight games before, so it’s a big step for them and a big moment for them.”

O’Gara has so often willingly and decisively assumed the responsibility to bail himself and his team out that it’s long since gone beyond his sumptuous technique.

His sheer presence also gives confidence to those working in front and around him to carry into contact and carefully protect the ball or repeatedly clear out 40 times, so that come the moment he steps back into the pocket they wouldn’t exchange him for anybody, not even Dan Carter.

“It’s a lovely feeling to have a guy back there that’s just dying to get that,” admitted O’Connell, before adding with a knowing, broad smile: “If Rog could orchestrate every game to be like that, that’s the way he’d want them to end and I don’t know does every outhalf always want that. It’s just a lovely feeling to have a guy who wants that position in every game.

“It’s an example to everyone to have a guy that’s there that long and who is as hungry as ever and willing to fight as much as ever. I think a lot of players don’t lose their skill level, they don’t lose their fitness, they don’t lose their speed, but I think guys lose that will to fight, and Rog has that in abundance.

“He’s willing to get into a dogfight with anyone and that’s a great thing to have at his age.”

Wales may try to lay much of the blame for their World Cup exit at Alain Rolland, but far more telling was the reluctance of Stephen Jones, with over 100 caps to his name, to assume the responsibility with a World Cup final for his country on the line. And it’s O’Gara’s almost compulsive desire to be centre of the stage which has also marked him out as a winner for well over a decade now.