By Charlie Mulqueen, Paris
WITH 56 caps already in the bag, 546 international points accumulated, a third visit to the Stade de France ... it’s little wonder that Ronan O’Gara’s focus going into today’s RBS Six Nations encounter is on somehow eking out a badly needed Irish victory.
There’s no semblance of nerves or uncertainty, just a steely determination to put right the team’s disappointing performances of recent times and get the show back on the road.
The onus on the number ten and place kicker is arguably greater than on any other member of the side, but that has rarely if ever fazed O’Gara. He’ll be 29 in a month’s time and still loves the life of the professional rugby player.
He remains contracted to the IRFU until the end of the 2006-7 season and in all probability will extend that until after the World Cup in autumn 2007.
After that, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility of seeking out fresh challenges.
"If I were to go, I think I’d like France because I have no interest in England or Wales," he says.
"I did French at school and university and speak the language. I’d absolutely love to try the southern hemisphere, that would be great, wouldn’t it? Imagine that life - Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, but I suppose it’s out of the question because they don’t take foreign players. Look what Claw [Peter Clohessy] did. Six months at Queensland. Magnificent, especially when you’re moving on in your career. There’s a limited time scale to achieve and experience these things. The older you get, the greater the responsibilities."
However, that’s all in the future and O’Gara faces a monumental task this afternoon as he attempts to use his skill and experience to motivate a decent Irish performance. He does so on the back of a series of poor Irish performances before Christmas, reports of a bust-up with coach Eddie O’Sullivan and another distinctly low-par display last week by the entire team. It was an occasion that depressed him greatly.
"The kicking side of the game was okay but there was little interlinking between the forwards and backs, we forced the offload too much and didn’t play through the phases as much as I would have liked and that was definitely frustrating," he admitted.
"We couldn’t get a rhythm going. The Italians man-marked our two centres but there was still time to move the ball. We probably didn’t adapt as quickly as we should have, but that’s a criticism of all the backs. If they man-mark like that, there’s space. No matter what people might say, I did grubber kick it, I did put it in behind them but then people ask why you didn’t keep it in hand. It’s a hard mix.
"Turning over possession and losing territory is killing us. We should have scored off the first kick to the wings. That’s a kick pass, as opposed to a kick. I said it to Tommy [Bowe] that he’s got to catch that on the full and score. I’m not being harsh on him. It’s one way of dealing with blitz defence. Keeps ’em guessing, you know."
O’Gara renews direct rivalry this afternoon with the richly talented but sometimes flaky Frederic Michalak. While he has a healthy respect for the Toulouse star, he clearly isn’t in any way intimidated by the prospect and may even quietly fancy his chances of giving his side an edge in this key position.
"He’s a flair player, he can be absolutely brilliant but there can be a flip side to him as well," he mused. "He doesn’t really control a game in terms of traditional number ten play. He has his ups and downs. He is capable of producing moments of magic as he did for Toulouse against Wasps but then he can definitely be got into as well."
As for the French centres, he agrees that Ireland are fortunate Yannick Jauzion isn’t available ("He’s in a league of his own") and also wonders "where [Benoit] Baby has gone. He was awesome when we saw him at Lansdowne last year."
The Scottish result took the whole Irish squad by surprise and leaves them a little unsure of what to expect from the French this afternoon.
"They have so much to play for," he reasons.
"It’s very rarely you hear of a French team losing two in a row in the championship and that makes the task that bit greater for us. The threat of a backlash is only natural but I would like to think there will be something similar from us after the way we played last week.
"I’m confident we won’t play like that again, that we’ll get a bit of fluidity back into our game. If we play the same again, we’ll get a hiding. It’s as simple as that. I’m not stupid enough to think otherwise and have no problem saying it."
This is O’Gara’s sixth international against France since his first appearance against them in the 27-25 victory at the Stade de France in 2000. He contributed in no small way to Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick of tries on that memorable occasion and so it’s little surprise that he loves the St Denis venue: "It’s a great stadium, great atmosphere, carpet of a pitch. It’s one of the fixtures of the year, to get to run out in a place like that and show off. I’ve played well there in the past and so I’m kind of looking forward to it. I remember setting Axel (Anthony Foley) up for a try and of course the win six years ago was special."