RWC 15: Ronan O’Gara and his World Cup demons
Ireland and Munster legend looks back on the Battle of Bordeaux and vying with Sexton
The 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat to Wales was Ronan O’gara’s last appearance for Ireland. Photograph: Getty
“It was an episode which has burned so deep into the heart and mind of Ireland that it is not yet possible for the historian to approach it with the detailed knowledge or the objectivity which it deserves and sooner or later must have.” – FSL Lyons, historian, writing on the Irish Civil War in 1971.
OF course, this concerns rugby not war. It hasn’t taken decades for tensions to simmer down. A detailed and objective account of what happened in and around Bordeaux during the month of September 2007 has gradually come to light. Same goes for the almost redemptory tournament in New Zealand four years later.
Autobiographical coin has helped this process along but the ideal first person account has to be Ronan O’Gara; the coronary artery pumping blood through Ireland’s 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cup campaigns.
Kept on the waiting list in 1999, by tournament’s end he and Peter Stringer had become the nailed-on Munster halfbacks. Ireland’s difficulty providing their opportunity.
So O’Gara remained, a visible icon, until decamping to Paris in 2013 to rejoin the mortal ranks as assistant coach with Racing Métro 92.
Seemingly David Humphreys’s understudy in 2003, he returned from Australia the director general. If 2007 in France was to be his finest hour; it proved to be the darkest. And not just as a rugby player.
“Obviously it was new when you hear personal stuff about you. Anything but rugby you couldn’t care less but something like a marriage being over when there is absolutely no basis is too severe,” he recalls.
Rumours faded as the father, husband, outhalf soldiered on.
By 2011 he was seemingly in decline. Feeling usurped by a superior, and usually as accurate, specimen in Johnny Sexton, O’Gara’s force of personality, while channelling that self-honed steely nerve, saw him reclaim the 10 jersey as Ireland coach Declan Kidney, mid-tournament, reversed a decision made as far back as November 2009.
He is hardly to blame for maintaining career-high form aged 34, certainly place-kicking to a world class standard, yet it was what Ireland sacrificed in Wellington for that World Cup quarter-final against Wales that continues to cause rancourous debate. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Even Donncha O’Callaghan was knocked over by rampaging Welsh centre Jamie Roberts.
But what-if scenarios from that loss will never go away. Ireland, having bullied the Wallabies at Eden Park with the power and aggression of Stephen Ferris, Seán O’Brien, Paul O’Connell and Cian Healy allied to the sacrificial contributions of Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip, seemingly delivered safe passage to a first ever World Cup semi-final, where a shambolic-looking France awaited.
Can the quarter-final defeat be put down to Wales having tactically more astute coaches?
“No, I don’t think so,” said O’Gara, who offered another explanation: “I don’t think our hunger was what it was for Australia when we were like men possessed. When you are a small percentage off you get nailed. And that’s what happened to us. I think a few people in our squad talked it up. They thought that maybe we were performing without having done anything yet.
“I think a lot of us believed the press that we were already in the semi-final.”
Any player or interview in particular?
“I just remember reading a few articles. Certain players in the squad were, not emotionally, but got a small bit carried away to do with the hype in terms of believing everything that everybody was saying. It’s hard too because if you are asked a question in a certain way and you say yes then the journalist can use that question.
“I don’t think we had the fear factor that we had for the Australia game.”
Kidney started Sexton against the USA, when he kicked poorly in a gale, and the Wallabies, when he played well but missed three from five before O’Gara arrived for a hamstrung Gordon D’Arcy with 30 minutes to go. Sexton went to inside centre after making it 9-6 but when his fifth penalty hit the post O’Gara was instructed to take over.
His robotic technique yielded six more points off scrum penalties as Ireland recorded a famous 15-6 victory. Sexton recently said it remains a “sore point”.
Kidney’s decision to change place kickers, mid-game, is not a call O’Gara would be quick to make as a coach. He identified another flaw in the transition from old to new: “It probably could have been managed better in terms of the coach. Johnny started in 2009, that autumn (against South Africa), I don’t know at that stage if he had played a (full) season with Leinster.”
Michael Cheika kept Sexton on a frustrating leash. He only truly became Leinster’s starting outhalf by default when Felipe Contepomi’s knee blew out in the European semi-final at Croke Park in May 2009.
“Handing over the reins may have happened six months too soon,” O’Gara believes. “The whole thing was not managed great in terms of getting the best out of both ends.
“You had a fella in there who wasn’t happy and two players who didn’t know who was going to start. You need to give confidence to your number 10. For years we were toing and froing.”
Was Sexton having a bad day against Australia?
“Not a bad day. There might have been a small bit of panic or fear that he might miss the next one so I got the nod to kick. I don’t really know why. I’d back him to kick them.”
Was that call made by the coach or did you, as the outhalf, take the tee?
“No, no, Jesus no, I’d always be whoever starts should finish kicking. I’ve been in that position myself with the Lions in 2001. You need to back your kicker big time. I was told to kick and I wasn’t going to turn it down either. From my point of view there is a game there and that’s what I am good at – kicking under pressure. You don’t stand off. I was told to take it.”
Afterwards, a clearly emotionally invested O’Gara gave that famous television interview:“I had a tough week mentally in that I felt I should have started the game,” said O’Gara on RTÉ television.
Then he announced his international retirement: “I’m struggling, like, my kids and wife are at home. I’m struggling. It’s massive for us. I’m done with Ireland in a few weeks. I’ve had a great time in this jersey but I want this to be the biggest time.”
You said it was the end of the line for you in a green jersey, did that just pop into your head?
“I was probably annoyed in my head in terms of the introduction of Johnny after playing a couple of months for Leinster.
“All of a sudden he was catapulted into the national jersey over a fella who had done well for eight or 10 years. I felt you got to earn that. I wasn’t anywhere near finished in my head from October ’09 on. But then you realise it comes to a point where, I mean, the World Cup is the be all and end all.
“I mean you are getting on, there is a really good player there, it is his time (so) you go. That’s what I was saying, in my head I was going to finish with the World Cup. It didn’t work out well with the Welsh game but there was no tomorrow. That was my point of view.”
Obviously it benefited you, but is it not an error to change your outhalf in the middle of a World Cup? “It’s an interesting discussion because I think if you have two good 10s you have to manage them. I was doing everything at the start to get the group somewhere that we had never been before.
“I came in and kicked well (against Australia) while Johnny did well in the centre. I got in then for the Russia game and kicked well and played well. Then it was . . . what do you do for Italy? People didn’t think we’d hammer them the way we did.”
O’Gara started and kicked 16 points before Sexton arrived to land a penalty and touchline conversion in the 36-6 win that saw Ireland top the pool. Despite winning 12 more caps up to February 2013, the 22-10 defeat to Wales was the last time he wore number 10 for Ireland.
From all of this O’Gara’s sustainability and survival instincts can only be respected. He almost made the 1999 World Cup squad. He’s now glad he didn’t. Also glad he wasn’t fit for the 50-18 battering by England in February 2000.
“Probably would have started the game in Twickenham. In hindsight I am very lucky. Your career could have been crushed in one game,” he muses.
The 2003 tournament is almost a role reversal to what happened in 2011 in that O’Gara was the coming man to David Humphreys instead of Sexton to him. Except both tournaments ended the same; quarter-final defeats with O’Gara at outhalf.
Triple Crowns followed in 2004, 2006 and again in 2007 but Ireland’s upward trajectory under Eddie O’Sullivan grinded to a halt at that year’s World Cup. The lunacy of a warm-up match against Bayonne seems obvious now (during one of the many scuffles Brian O’Driscoll had his face smashed in).
“It is only when you live in France do you appreciate what you are getting yourself into. They are very proud. It is no surprise that they went for O’Driscoll. They were like caged animals let loose on a team trying to find form. In hindsight it wasn’t the smartest decision.”
Rate your form and that of the team from the Six Nations into the warm-ups and on to the tournament – when did the rut set in?
“We struggled to beat Italy at Ravenhill in a warm-up game. Looking back, that was obviously the start of it.
“Aw, I’ve thought long and hard about this and am still struggling for answers. Because the intent was there and we had such a good squad, such good morale, we were very ambitious, we thought we could do something (special). Then we started playing poorly so to try and fix that we started training ourselves into the ground.
“Come Saturday there was very little juice in the tank to play a game.”
The probable causes for failure are presented to him: Ireland abandoned tactics pre-tournament because they weren’t working in training, chronic boredom, a squad split into certainties and dirt trackers from as far back as the summer tour of Argentina . . .
“That’s probably a fair point but in any team the players want to play with the best players so if there was a fella not in the 23 you could be sure the senior players would mention it even though it is not in their power. Because they stick out like sore thumbs.
“People only see games on a Saturday. We had four opportunities a week to have a crack off each other behind closed doors.”
You psyched yourselves out by the Georgia game; that needed to be a 30-point win, right?
“We started really well for 10 minutes and didn’t get any return. It’s fair to say confidence was a small bit shook by that. Georgia should have nearly won the game due to stupid errors by players. A lot of it was self-inflicted.”
Before the French game in Paris a journalist from L’Equipe, after an admittedly unforthcoming interview by O’Gara, made reference, without a shred of proof, to a six-figure gambling debt and problems in his “private sphere”.
“The reality is it would have been laughed at if we had been winning. Because we were losing it made things so much worse. You can’t distract from it by saying, ‘Well, we are going really well and there is a great mood in the camp’ because people aren’t stupid, people can detect it.
“It was a low point and there were no distractions. We were in an industrial estate. It was tough going with poor food, poor mood, not among the players, but because we were playing so poor it was ‘F**k, what is happening?’”
Against France there was a moment when referee Chris White stopped play to speak to you. Do you remember that incident?
21 minutes: White had just penalised Denis Leamy near the Irish posts despite a decent impression of Richie McCaw. Leamy blows a gasket. O’Driscoll is almost pleading with White for a break. Jean-Baptiste Élissalde had already made it 3-0 then 6-0 . . .
White (blows his whistle): “Number 10 for Ireland please. You, come here! Be very careful what you are saying, do you understand?”
O’Driscoll (arriving): “What was that?”
White (to O’Driscoll): “He spoke . . . out of turn. (To O’Gara) You know what you said. Not again please.”
O’Driscoll: “What did he say?”
White (to O’Driscoll): “I’ll tell you later.”
O’Driscoll (exasperated): “(Garbled) . . . what did he say!?”
White: “He swore.”
O’Driscoll’s eyes close. White retreats. Elissalde makes it 9-0.
What happened there?
“Ah, he was the big referee name at the time. The Nigel Owens. But we weren’t getting a crack. When it rains it pours. Refs are human too. They go with the flow. They read the press and can see Ireland are playing very poorly so you don’t get the 50-50s.”
Do you think you played well in that game?
“No. It was my first time with a bad concussion. I got busted by (Serge) Betsen. An awful bang on the head. I played that game fully concussed. I didn’t play well. I shouldn’t have continued on but I was never going to, you don’t walk off a pitch, you have to be carried off. That was always my mentality.”
Did he get you early?
“Yep. It was like playing in a match box. My vision was all distorted so I knew from then on what it was like to be fully concussed as opposed to being sparked.”
The fallout, or lack thereof because of the four-year contract extension given to O’Sullivan before the World Cup, meant it took another Twickenham nightmare in 2008 before change occurred.
The IRFU bought O’Sullivan out of his contract and he hasn’t been considered for a coaching position in Ireland since.
“I was captain of Ireland that day in Twickenham,” O’Gara remembers. “We went 10-0 up and got beaten 33-10. Cipriani was man of the match, he had a fantastic game, that was his one.We were minus Paul and Brian. Nowadays if we are minus Paul and Johnny it is not the same team.”
In March 2009 Ireland ended the 61-year wait for a second Grand Slam with O’Gara a pivotal figure in the agonising Millennium Stadium victory.
“That was the most pleasing thing. We rebounded very well and that was obviously our intention because it was a horrendous couple of weeks after the World Cup because you question everything; should I be playing at that level, have I let down the whole country with that shambles.
“You feel . . . I wouldn’t use the word suicidal, because I don’t know how that feels but it’s the lowest, lowest point that a human being can feel. You have no self-worth. You don’t want to leave your house. It’s horrendous. That’s not exaggerating. It was horrendous.”
That presumably ranks highest in career disappointments.
“I’ve had plenty of them.”
The worst days flicker to mind; Munster losing to Northampton in 2000, the Duncan McRae pummelling in 2001, New Zealand at least twice, the Loftus Versfeld Garryowen in the 2009 Lions series, the Murrayfield end in 2012.
Then you remember him handing off Mal O’Kelly in 2008 and embracing the red-soaked south terrace. The Cardiff drop goals. Nerveless perfection against Biarritz.
The many windswept, soaking Thomond Park nights (like the drop goal to beat Northampton in 2011), and know he will always be the red-cheeked conductor of Limerick and so many far-flung touchlines.
Even if the worst days linger.
“In 2011 we won all our pool matches and went to a quarter-final then some boys, maybe me included in that, weren’t mentally at the right pitch, maybe off by five per cent, and a hungry Welsh team take you on that day.
“There are no second chances and you are aware of that. You look at preparation and performances in the other four games and you can kind of move on.
“But after 2007 there’s no moving on. There were and still are just too many unanswered questions. It would disturb you really.”
Those sitting in state labelled it a “blip” and did move on, confining it to Irish rugby’s foggy history, but for those who lived those Bordeaux days it stays where it is. It will always disturb Ronan O’Gara. But that’s the way you want him. Driven.