‘Love’ is a strong word to use, but it sums up my feeling for Munster
The latest addition to our stellar team of rugby writers reflects on the ups and downs of a magnificent playing career — and reveals the reasons why he’s chosen to move to Paris to kick-start his coaching career.
By Ronan O'Gara
IT FELT very natural. There was never a day or moment in a match or training that made the decision for me. I have always thought logically and realistically about things; for me there is a natural cycle to everything, and now is the right time for me to finish playing the game I love.
I am trusting my instinct and it is telling me now is the appropriate time to stop. Could I have played on for another year? Of course I could, but I feel it’s getting harder and harder every season and I want to leave the game at the height of my powers.
The most difficult aspect of my decision is the realisation of what I am leaving behind. I leave a club that is very close to my heart and has given me the most extraordinary array of memories. I cannot speak highly enough of the men I’ve played with since 1997. The bond between the players is very hard to define and people on the outside have no idea of the depth of feeling among the players. I have developed special relationships with many of these guys and I am very grateful for that. I firmly believe that the Munster supporters play a crucial role in the team’s success. Their knowledge, love, enthusiasm and passion is above and beyond what we or any team in world rugby could rightly expect.
My final two games for Munster highlighted the fact. Both were tough away games in Europe where we did the business in one and failed in the other. However, the reaction of many thousands of supporters in Montpellier that day will live long in the memory bank for my wife and I. I was bursting with pride walking around the pitch with my son, Rua, in my arms appreciating the fans’ efforts to get us over the line. Going forward it is important for the Munster readers of this column to know that the team thrives on this level of support.
Had I already decided to retire before the loss in Montpellier? I kind of knew. My lads are gone. My boys in the team are gone. But I hadn’t decided finally, no. I didn’t enjoy the Rabo season to be honest but I get a massive thrill out of big European rugby matches. For my whole career I had Test rugby so I suppose the way I wrapped up with Ireland, it wasn’t the way I wanted to finish. So that gave me the motivation to make sure I’d show these fellas I can play. There were doubters looming and it was nice to show them this fella can still play.
Not that I’d be basing my decision on what people thought. I have to be selfish and I made my decision without any input from anyone else. I just know I’ve always trusted my instincts on my game, in my career, in my relationships with people and it just seems to me now that I have so many positive memories in my head that I just want to go now.
I’ve played with so many players, probably more than a 100 players with Munster, and there’s a few, really close fellas but it’s very hard to close that net when it’s Munster. It’s hard to explain but I suppose I’d have a relationship with nearly every player in a different way. That’s what makes the club tick. It’s very hard for people to understand that. It’s strange. We’re all individuals, highly motivated in our own different ways, but all different. But there’s something that binds you together and I think it’s better not defining what that something is, because if you do, Munster won’t be what we want it to be.
I have also been lucky enough to play for our wonderful country for 13 seasons. I am very proud of representing Ireland for such a long time in modern sport. I retire as Ireland’s most capped player but the decision of a certain Leinster man to keep on playing suggests it won’t be for long. Time to hang up the boots, Brian!
Not being able to close out that Ireland career in my own way is a regret but one that was beyond my control. The only thing I’d say would be that the most pleasing thing was winning the No. 10 jersey back for the 2011 World Cup. That confirmed the belief I had in myself and the doggedness I had about myself. I knew for cup rugby that I’m going to give them no option but to pick me and that’s what happened.
But after that I’d no problem being back-up to Jonny Sexton because the Irish team has to develop and grow. I was moving on and I’ve had the most wonderful Irish career that anyone could possibly imagine. It’s something that I’m so proud of.
People think I’m a pure Munster man but I’m not, I’m an Irish man and I get such a buzz out of Test rugby. I’ve played it more often than anyone in this country. So when I hear it said ‘there’s a Rebel in him’ or ‘if he showed the same passion for Munster to Ireland’, it’s the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever heard. I don’t have to say it but people know how committed I am to Ireland.
So after that World Cup I had no problem whatsoever playing back-up to Jonny Sexton because he’s a very good player. But when Jonny got injured I felt I was probably the person to play that game, and just for this season’s Six Nations. I felt that in the summer I was always going to retire (from Test rugby) anyway, and that was the time to blood the younger fellas on the tour.
I trained with them every day so I knew the level that was required to stay ahead of these guys and I thought in my head ‘I’ve never become delusional or above my station’ but I thought I was probably a better option for the Six Nations.
I have had plenty of meaningful enquiries over the past few weeks from clubs around the world, ascertaining my interest in playing for them. Some in France, Europe and beyond. The answer though was very simple: No Thank You. If I was to keep playing it would be with Munster. No-one else. I have never given serious consideration to leaving Munster over the course of my playing career because the club satisfied all my ambitions and motivations.
I have ambitions in the years ahead to coach at a high level and, with this in mind, I can confirm now that I will be joining Racing Metro’s coaching staff in July for two years. I am hugely excited about the prospect and looking forward to the new challenge. I will be working mainly with their first team, and will also look after the half-backs at all age levels within the club. I will also be working with Racing’s Academy; that excites me because I need to understand principles of coaching the younger aged. I bet many of you are laughing at the prospect of Jonny Sexton having to listen to me on a daily basis!
Yesterday I met the president of the club, Jacky Lorenzetti, in London at a private lunch to conclude the deal. They are a hugely ambitious club and hopefully I can add value to their franchise as well as growing my coaching skills. The two head coaches taking over at Racing are the current Castres coaches and I have spoken to Laurent Traverse and Laurent Labit about what they expect of me in the coming season. These conversations have been brief because Castres are involved in the semi-final of the Top 14 but I know already that the two coaches have built impressive reputations and I look forward to learning from them.
Today’s column also represents another new adventure for me and I’m genuinely excited by the opportunity to provide detailed analysis and opinion of a game I love. I will provide constructive views, opinion and criticism on all areas of the game. I’d like to think I have a deep understanding of the game and hopefully I can provide a different kind of insight into rugby for readers of the Irish Examiner. You may not always agree with me, by the way. Rugby has become a complex game to understand and it is vital that key decisions, rules and law changes are explained at a basic level.
Finally, I, like everyone else have been deeply affected by the passing of Donal Walsh in Tralee this week. Fr. Francis Nolan informed us during his moving homily that Donal’s two dreams were to travel the world and play rugby for Munster. I sat in the church and prayed for Donal’s family and realised I have been living that dream for the last 17 years.
That’s all I could think about. Stand back here now a second and thank your lucky stars, Ronan. You feel like the chosen one.
There’s been days when you feel like giving up and you don’t think you’re good enough and you ask what are you doing all this for; you hate the media and you hate radio stations. But then, that’s the fuel I need to motivate me too.
So those words of Donal’s... if I was a 10-year-old boy and I was asked what I would like to do, that’s what I would have liked to have done.
So ‘grateful’ is the word I’d use. I wouldn’t be looking at moments or achievements. It’s the collective. I’m a member of a team that I have the utmost love for.
That’s a strong word to use for a rugby team, but that’s how I feel. Because of the supporters, the players and the people in the organisation. That would be it.
Thank you Donal.
Thank you Munster.
Thank you Ireland.
I am deeply honoured and humbled.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved