A well-known hurler from another county met Jimmy Barry-Murphy the summer after his last game with Cork, the victorious 1986 All-Ireland final, and enquired why he had quit while he was still operating near the height of his powers.
Barry-Murphy, as genial as ever, remarked with a grin: better to have people ask “Why aren’t you still playing?” than “Why the hell are you still playing?”
As it would transpire, JBM would have some regrets that he didn’t stay on playing for another year, but then Jimmy was still only 32. Ronan O’Gara is 36 now. As he outlined in his inaugural column for this paper, he could have played on for another year but sensed this was the time to go. His boys in the team were gone — but his smarts weren’t. He had shown he still had It, a fair rather than pale version of himself. Better to have people ask...
You can say the end of his international career was more muddled and even argue he should have gone after the 2011 World Cup but for us, there was something wonderfully defiant and also humble about his decision to remain on. He understood he was Jonny Sexton’s back-up while ready to fight it and all the way through showed he was an international calibre player, playing some of his best-ever rugby for Munster in the months immediately after that competition, as Northampton and anyone else who was in Thomond that magical November night will never forget. Maybe the optimum time to go was after New Zealand 2012, but never New Zealand 2011, and even then staying on the extra nine months was hardly a major misjudgement.
With the exception of Jack Charlton’s Army, it’s hard to think of a group of men that have transformed a sport’s perception and embedded it into the Irish public consciousness quite like what the Generation O of Driscoll, Connell and Gara. There were other contributors to that revolution which was most certainly televised, featuring on the Late Late almost every other week, but that trio were the Mount Rushmore figures.
There are people in their 20s now that have no idea that there was a time when rugby was one of the sick men of Irish sport, that its leading players were more accustomed to accepting wooden spoons than invites onto chat shows. It wasn’t one bit sexy. Generation O made it so and if it turned on anything it was on a couple of events within a few months of each other — O’Gara’s late kicks to shock Saracens and O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in Paris.
If no team has done more for the Heineken Cup than Munster, then it’s hard to think of one player that has done more for one sporting competition in this part of the world than Ronan O’Gara did for the Heineken Cup. Christy Ring easily doubled attendances for Railway Cup finals in the 40s and 50s but that was just one day in the year. Kevin Heffernan totally revolutionised football and the championship in the 70s and Ger Loughnane shook up the hurling world in the 90s but you never saw either on Sky. They’d never heard of either of them in the heart of Protestant Ulster. All Ulster knows who Ronan O’Gara is. Most of Britain does.
For that he has to thank Munster in particular but Munster in turn can thank him. As John Hayes pointed out in his autobiography, O’Gara was their most valuable player. There is no other team sport which is so reliant on one player or position for scores as rugby is on its placekicker and/or out-half, where you put winning and losing in the hands of just one man. O’Gara relished that scenario.
Kevin Johnson, the former Phoenix Suns NBA star, once painted a typical picture of 1990s America: the Chicago Bulls are playing on TV, the game is tight, less than 30 seconds left, and everyone in the arena and the whole country is transfixed, knowing that the ball is going to end up with only one man: Michael Jordan. Since just before the turn of the millennium, O’Gara was a similar figure in Irish sporting and social life. While his overall athletic talent and impact cannot reasonably be compared to a global star like Jordan, his capacity to deliver in the crunch and the impact he’s made on Irish social life was indeed MJ-like. As Hayes put it: “O’Gara in his temperament and leadership and game-management was special.”
That is why he should make a fine coach. He has so much to learn but so much to teach. That he identified he had to go abroad to maybe make it at home is the latest example of his just how independent and tough-minded he is. Just like JBM, we haven’t seen the last of him at all.