It's getting on for 20 years since I was ‘invited’ into my first Irish rugby squad, writes Ronan O'Gara.
Every time Joe Schmidt announces a national squad these days, the heartbeat quickens just a tad thinking of the likes of Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell and Jack Carty — what they’re thinking, how they found out, and how they reacted — cartwheels in the back garden or a momentary and controlled internal yelp of satisfaction before putting the game face back on.
We are all different but I’m guessing the lads were doing cartwheels in Salthill. This isn’t the culmination of a season or two’s work, not if they are anything like I was.
An Ireland call-up, a call from your country, is something every schoolboy dreams of going to bed at night. It’s all grand and normal when you are proven, but I hope that dream of a primary schoolboy in green, that cartwheel feeling, never goes away.
The current generation get a hard time, but they are as ambitious, perhaps more ambitious, than our lot.
Let’s not pretend we were better. I was a cartwheeler. It meant that much. Being named to start against Scotland nearly 19 years ago was the culmination of 14 years of going to bed thinking ‘Christ, I’d love to play for Ireland’.
You might think it’s never going to be you, but as soon as it does, your goals change. If you are made of the right stuff, you get the idea.
Then running, then getting up to speed and staying there at full pelt for as long as possible by being hugely professional. The end always comes too soon, believe me.
Today’s international call-ups are all quite structured. A notice is issued to selected players. Upon assembly, everyone is provided with a kit allocation for the international window, all of which has been co-ordinated under the watchful eye of Ger Carmody and Sinead Bennett from team services. Joe Schmidt will certainly make attempts to personally contact those who’ve been close but missed out.
In our day, Rala (Patrick O’Reilly) was the go-to man for everything.
We asked, he sorted.
We still were getting the letter in 1999 from the union, inviting us to attend the Irish camp. You were told when the train went, where it went from and what time it arrived at the other end.
We just had to get on it.
We didn’t have to do a lot, did we? Washing, dry cleaning, anything to be done, give Rala the nod.
My first Ireland cap seemed to arrive in stages. I’d been there or thereabouts for the World Cup squad in 1999 but only two 10s were brought, David Humphreys and Eric Elwood. I wasn’t far away though.
I played for Ireland against Connacht in the build-up that August and was driven home to Cork by Donal Lenihan’s wife Mary afterwards. I called her Mrs Lenihan all the way down.
In September that year, Munster beat Ireland in Musgrave Park in a World Cup ‘warm-up’, which looking back now, mightn’t have been a great idea if you are in green, with the crowd going mental for the local lads to put Ireland on their arses. I was playing with Munster, and we were handy by then. Plus, we only had five players selected in the World Cup squad, so there was a hint of sulphur in the Cork air.
It can’t be good trying to upscuttle the national team and they heading for a World Cup a couple of weeks later!
The Munster pack was Marcus Horan, Frankie, John Hayes, Gaillimh, John Langford, Quinny, Wallace and Axel. Strings and myself at half back, with centres Dutchy and John Kelly, Colm McMahon and Anthony Horgan on the wings and Dominic Crotty full back. Not bad.
It wouldn’t happen now. Imagine Ireland going up to Ravenhill next August to play Ulster. How hostile would that be?
Even when you are near enough the Ireland set-up to be in the conversation, there’s never a moment when you took the progression as a formality. You don’t do that with an international cap unless you are very cocky.
That self-belief that everyone assumes I had was completely counterfeit. Beneath that veneer I was crippled with insecurities. Before the first game of the 2000 campaign, against England at Twickenham, I was crippled by something else.
Holding a tackle bag for Eric Elwood in training at the ALSAA complex in Dublin, my right knee, the kicking one, crumpled underneath me. Medial ligament damage. First cap v Woodward’s England with a wonky knee?
Don’t think so. Twickenham was a debacle, Ireland lost 50-18, and I was in the mix for the Scotland game.
The problem was proving the right knee was up to it. And it wasn’t the only problem – I would be testing it for Cork Con in an AIL game above in Ballymena. I was 22, the knee was strapped up, and felt wooden. I had no feeling in my leg. Ballymena weren’t too bothered about Scotland and Ronan O’Gara. Let’s do this fella. However, it went pretty well, and I stayed off the cans on the train home.
The following week was scanning teletext every minute in the same way the three Connacht lads would have been awaiting Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad announcement. Once you are in camp in the Glenview Hotel, you are looking for different types of signals. You could see Humphs getting a tap on the shoulder.
Prepping for your international debut demands a simplicity of focus: It amounhts to: Please God, make this go well. To this day, I’ve no idea how I came through the build-up on the day of the Scotland game. Leaving the team meeting in the Berkeley Court, I was shitting myself. People were clapping us out the door, but I could only stare at the carpet pile, thinking ‘I’m way too nervous for this’.
The oddest things go through your mind: ‘Don’t be a one-cap wonder’. That framed my entire thought process on game-day. With Munster, there was fierce slagging at the time about lads who had one cap and one cap only.
It was a slow count. First Cap. Then No 2. Then a third cap. Once you got to a fifth cap, you breathe.
Some people deal with pre-match nerves by telling themselves ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen here?’ That used drive me mental when people would say that. The worst thing that can happen is you can make an absolute clown of yourself in front of 50,000 people by spraying the ball over the place, missing touch, getting busted in tackles.
That approach never struck a chord with me.
The first few caps are a daze, in truth. It sweeps you along rather than you exercising any control over it. After a while you get a little bit more comfortable in the environment, though I have often thought that was a Munster thing.
The boys I played with from Leinster felt like they had a divine right, that they were put on this planet to play for Ireland. Anyone from Munster really felt they had to earn it, but that mental fortitude and stability was of great benefit in the long run. We doubted ourselves getting there, but it was a great tool in staying there.
I only played 50 minutes against Scotland, but I remember every moment of it to this day. Humphs came in and got a breakaway try and we ended up winning 44-22.
I was delighted it went well, but there was enough there to keep me wondering. It was a time when the media had a disproportionate influence on opinion.
You read so much into the press and media. It’s natural to be so fragile in that moment. But that’s how things were then.
You don’t right or wrong it. That was a time we had pizza and a can of Coke the night before a game.
That’s why you don’t compare players from different generations. You measure it by what you did at the time.
The following week I got 30 points against Italy. A thought began to form: Ok, so maybe I can do this.