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Gerry Thornley: O’Gara v Sexton rivalry takes a new twist

Bitter rivalry turned friendship now sees the famous outhalves meet as coach v player

It’s been perhaps the most compellingly bitter rivalry turned friendship in Irish professional rugby and it’s about to have another twist.

They crossed paths, and swords, on many an occasion as opposing outhalves with Leinster and Munster, as well as being rivals for the Irish '10' jersey, but on Saturday week in the Stade Vélodrome in Marseilles they do so again as coach v player.

Back on a sunny May 17th in 2013, literally hours before Leinster and Sexton played Stade Francais in the European Challenge Cup final at the RDS, O’Gara confirmed on foot of his retirement at the end of that season he would be stepping into coaching. Not just that, but he was going to become an assistant/kicking coach at Racing 92, whom Sexton was also joining the following season.

O’Gara would be one of Sexton’s coaches. You couldn’t make it up.

In truth, their relationship had thawed a good deal by that stage and then, no longer playing rivals and as two Irishmen abroad in Paris, like Rick and Louis in Casablanca so began a beautiful friendship over innumerable cups of Barry’s tea. This remained the case after Sexton returned to Leinster following two seasons with O’Gara at Racing.

In the same way that a cocky O'Gara breezed onto the international scene in 2000, when Sexton more belatedly broke into the Irish team in 2009 he wasn't lacking in self-confidence either

O’Gara stayed on at Racing for two more seasons, becoming their defence coach and helping them to win the 2016 French Championship, their first bouclier de brennus since 1990, before moving to the Crusaders. Prior to his departure, Sexton drove from Dublin to Cork with his family to personally wish him the best in New Zealand.

O’Gara disagreed with Warren Gatland’s decision not to select Sexton for last year’s Lions tour – albeit that call has probably served both Leinster and Ireland well this season – and reached out to him by text.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Their rivalry began 15 seasons ago and by the time Declan Kidney handed Sexton his debut against Fiji at the RDS in November 2009 they had already built up a fair degree of antipathy in Leinster-Munster clashes.

Dethroned

The first of these was Sexton’s full competitive debut for Leinster, and just his second cap, in a festive derby in 2006, O’Gara kicking 20 points in a 25-11 win for Munster at Thomond Park.

The following season Leinster did the double over Munster, Sexton coming on after half-an-hour to help his side to their first win in Musgrave Park since 1985 and landing a drop goal in a 21-12 win at the RDS which all but sealed his side's Magners League success.

With O’Gara at the helm, and Sexton a replacement in their Thomond Park meeting, Munster did the league double in 2008-09 but, of course, the balance was about to shift dramatically when Leinster dethroned Munster at Croke Park in that season’s Champions Cup semi-final.

Sexton replaced Felipe Contepomi in the 26th minute of that game and, famously, after Gordon D'Arcy scored Leinster's first try he roared at O'Gara as he lay on the ground. O'Gara accepted Sexton's subsequent apology but the bad blood endured.

All told, they met each other in 14 derbies, with Sexton enjoying nine wins to O’Gara’s five, which did include Munster’s victory in the 2011 Magners League final a week after Sexton had orchestrated Leinster’s remarkable comeback in the European final over Northampton in Cardiff. The last of their Leinster-Munster meetings was when Leinster won a 30-21 Pro12 thriller at the Aviva Stadium in October 2012, when Sexton kicked 15 points.

O’Gara has since said that hatred would be too strong a word for their initial rivalry, but looking back it was inevitable that there would be ill-feeling. They are two like-minded people, uber competitive, high achieving and, by O’Gara’s admission, fuelled also by self-doubt.

In the same way that a cocky O’Gara breezed onto the international scene in 2000, when Sexton more belatedly broke into the Irish team in 2009 he wasn’t lacking in self-confidence either.

Most of all, Sexton was a 24-year-old in a hurry, and wanted to rip the Irish jersey off O’Gara’s back, and as O’Gara was an established 32-year-old who wasn’t remotely inclined to go quietly into the night, that was the only way he was going to acquire it too.

Peak

Things became so bad that ne'er a word would be said in the van with Mark Tainton and Paddy 'Rala' O'Reilly en route to or from goal-kicking practice with Ireland. Their rivalry reached something of a peak in the 2011 World Cup, when O'Gara reclaimed the '10' jersey, although after Ireland's quarter-final against Wales his ensuing dozen caps would be all off the bench.

Sexton was ruled out of last year's semi-final against La Rochelle, when O'Gara's devised defensive system to 'attack the ball' helped shut Leinster down

Heaven knows where Irish rugby would have been without them. They are comfortably Ireland’s two leading points scorers of all time, with O’Gara on 1083 and Sexton on 981. Since 2004, one or other has started at outhalf in 83 of Ireland’s last 95 Six Nations games.

They have started 19, and all the main ones, of Ireland’s 24 games in the last five World Cups, with Sexton on course to ensure that between them they’ll be the Irish outhalves at six consecutive World Cups. They are also two of the most thoughtful and articulate Irish players of the pro era.

Sexton was ruled out of last year’s semi-final against La Rochelle, when O’Gara’s devised defensive system to ‘attack the ball’ helped shut Leinster down. But O’Gara will know better than anyone that Leinster will be a different animal with Sexton at ‘10’.

He is the on-field coach of the team and often its executioner as well, witness the shift to his kicking game in the second-half, six from six off the tee and three try-scoring assists.

You could see Toulouse were trying to get after Sexton last Saturday and O’Gara, planning for perhaps the biggest game of his burgeoning coaching career, will also have plans to shut down the Leinster playmaker.

But one of the many benefits of the remodelled Leinster and Irish attacking game is that by often using him as a second receiver out the back, Sexton isn’t taking as many late hits even though he is still taking the ball to the line. Ross Molony’s pull-back and Sexton’s dummy before his try-scoring pass to Josh van der Flier illustrated that.

There are many other sub-plots off the pitch in the build-up; Leo Cullen and Felipe Contepomi also coming up against Donnacha Ryan as well as O'Gara.

But it is the new twist in a first meeting as player v coach between Sexton and O’Gara which is the most intriguing, and might even unnerve both of them a little.

gthornley@irishtimes.com