O’Gara stands up to be counted


Ireland Grand Slam hero Ronan O’Gara today rounded on his critics by declaring his performance against Wales proves he can handle pressure. O’Gara’s temperament was questioned by various pundits in the build-up to yesterday’s heart-stopping Six Nations title decider at the Millennium Stadium.

Ireland prevailed 17-15 when O’Gara, having endured a poor first half, struck a drop goal in the 85th minute to seize a second Grand Slam for the country.

The Munster outhalf had clearly been targeted with Wales seeking to expose his defensive frailties but he delivered when Ireland needed him most.

Having kicked two conversions and set up the second try for Tommy Bowe he landed the decisive blow in an agonising spell of injury time that saw the lead change hands twice.

“There will always be people who crack under pressure but I won two European Cup finals under pressure,” he said. “None of those Welsh fellas who were talking have played in European Cup finals.

“They talked the talk all week but didn’t walk it so I’m particularly happy about that. I had a few errors in the first half. I screwed one or two kicks over and took some banter but you expect that.

“I got my head down at half-time to figure out how I could make an impact and things worked out. I enjoyed the second half.”

O’Gara knew his kick, coming just moments after Stephen Jones had nudged Wales 15-14 ahead with his own drop goal, would split the uprights.

“David Wallace was lined up to carry and once you see him carrying you know the ball was going to come back,” he said. “I had my point picked out but once we got in from five metres Rory Best decided to get involved.

“The passing channel was blocked so I was roaring at him to get out of the way. I felt they were well offside but there was no way the referee was going to award a penalty so I just had to get the ball up as opposed to drive it up.

“I was very confident — I had the right imagery and visualised the kick going over.”

However, the 32-year-old was equally convinced that Jones had been successful with his dramatic penalty attempt on the last kick of the game.

Substitute hooker Best infringed on the halfway line and Jones lined up a monster kick that would have seized victory in what was an enthralling climax to the championship.

But his effort fell inches short of the uprights to the glee of Ireland’s players who began their Grand Slam celebrations as soon as Geordan Murphy sent the ball dead.

“I thought Stephen would get it. He’d been kicking well but fatigue sets in and the body’s battered after 80 minutes,” said O’Gara. “It was a tough kick. I thought it was over and I had pictures of us walking into the changing rooms beaten. These are the fine lines.

“I went up to Stephen afterwards because I know how he’ll feel — he’ll be seen as the fella who missed the kick but that’s not necessarily fair because it was a tough kick. I missed a kick to win a European Cup final against Northampton so I wanted to go up to him.

“Of all the Welsh people he was the one who was most respectful in the week. He spoke intelligently. I’ve had good battles with him for 10 years and admire him as a pro.

“It’s important to me that when I hang up my boots I have a few friendships with other fellas from different countries.”

The result ended Ireland’s 61-year wait for the Grand Slam and O’Gara was delighted by the conclusion of a torrid 18 months that reached its nadir at the 2007 World Cup.

“It’s good to get the monkey off our backs. There are quality players in this team and we needed that to build our credibility,” he said.

“As time goes on we’ve felt that we’ve needed something. This team hasn’t thought about the misery of the World Cup but it was an awful time. We’ve worked hard to get this side where it belongs and there a fair amount of pride in this jersey now.

“That was probably missing in the past but it was a very happy dressing room and the fellas are very proud to represent the country. I’m realistic — if we hadn’t won it this time I don’t think there would have been a next year.”