DONAL LENIHAN: Domestic rugby losing its luminaries

The final weeks of any season are characterised by drama and emotion. Dreams fulfilled and shattered, players moving on, others donning the boots for one last battle.

It is the inevitable consequence of sport at the highest level.

That said, the last 10 days have been quite extraordinary. While one Irish great has finally called time on a glittering career, another penned a deal for another 12 months.

The Leinster faithful have had their wishes granted with Brian O’Driscoll succumbing to the allure of one more season. The prospect of a last tilt at the All Blacks next November and the desire to sample an international campaign under Joe Schmidt’s watch was too difficult to ignore. I hope it proves the right call. Before then, a last Lions tour beckons with just one more box to be ticked.

Ronan O’Gara’s retirement has, in my opinion, come at the right time and his move into coaching now takes him on a different route. The decision to develop his coaching skills and move on to the next phase of his career outside of the Munster environment is also to be applauded.

O’Gara’s understanding of the game and natural intelligence suggests he will be a quick learner. By moving to Racing Metro, he will be exposed to the best pair of young coaches in France in Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers. They have worked miracles once again this season, guiding Castres to the Top 14 semi-final where they meet beaten Heineken Cup finalists Clermont Auvergne next Saturday.

With impressive Northampton props Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati joining forces with 2012 Six Nations player of the tournament Dan Lydiate in the pack along with two other Lions in Jonny Sexton and Jamie Roberts, Racing will be a formidable outfit next season.

While O’Gara’s brief extends to working with the half-backs down to academy level, he is set to learn as much under the two Laurents as the young academy charges will under his direction.

The most interesting aspect of his move to Paris is that he will he working, one on one, with Sexton. I couldn’t help but wonder when watching him warm up with his Leinster kicking coach Richie Murphy an hour before the Amlin final last Friday night, how that dynamic will work. A few especially long deliveries from Sexton flew over Murphy’s head forcing him to go scampering off to collect the balls. The prospect of ROG acting as ball boy for Jonny would be worth the trip to Paris alone (I must have a word with the sports editor about a visit next season to check that one out).

Apart from the O’Gara and O’Driscoll news, two outstanding overseas imports also bow out together. The Auckland clones Doug Howlett and Isa Nacewa will leave a massive void on the provincial scene here next season with each being enormously influential, in Munster and Leinster respectively. It seemed entirely fitting that Howlett’s last act in a Munster jersey was to score a try against Glasgow, even if it did result in the shoulder injury that has forced a premature end to an amazing career.

For any overseas player to captain Munster requires them to bring something special to the table. Jim Williams was the first to do so, but that was understandable given the World Cup winner’s influence in the back row.

For a winger to do so is more difficult but only serves to highlight his standing. Howlett came to Munster in difficult circumstances after his beloved New Zealand had been unceremoniously dumped out of the 2007 World Cup by France.

He had unfinished business there but the prospect of returning home to fight for a place in their ultimately successful bid in 2011 never entered his mind. He still had what it took to make it into Graham Henry’s squad but his commitment and dedication to Munster was unquestioned.

The thing that stands out for me was how influential he was without the ball. Playing on the wing for the All Blacks isn’t exactly the most difficult shift in international rugby and it is no coincidence that Howlett was their leading try scorer of all time on his international retirement.

Playing for Munster, however, asked different types of questions and Doug was more than capable of answering them. Defensively — remember he is not a big man by current standards — Howlett was outstanding. He was more than capable of putting in the hits and his ability to read when to shoot out of the defensive line was unerring.

They were not traits he needed to show that often in a New Zealand jersey. In addition, his work rate when it came to the kick chase and his hunger to close down the opposition back three when they were on the receiving end of some O’Gara specials was selfless. He had everything and the news that he intends to keep his family in Cork for the foreseeable future is also good for the game as he has so much to offer.

Watching Nacewa against Stade Francais last Friday, it appeared almost wasteful that he is calling time on his career at this stage. Everything he did on the night exuded class. His game appreciation and range of skills are superb and the ease with which he plays others into try-scoring positions mark him out as a special player.

When he arrived first, I had serious question marks about him because Michael Cheika stubbornly kept playing him at out-half. I remember him in that role for the Auckland Blues against the 2005 Lions and wasn’t impressed. He lacked the game management skills to cut it in that position and it undermined his value to the team initially.

Once Cheika saw the light and left Felipe Contepomi and Sexton fight it out for the 10 jersey, Nacewa blossomed in the back three positions. He has been massively influential in all of Leinster’s successes since.

Watching him and Sexton pull the strings as Leinster completely dominated Stade last weekend highlighted once again what a loss that pair will be next season.

Right now they have the opportunity to achieve what has eluded them on the final day of the last two seasons by completing a European and domestic double. That would be apt given what Sexton, Nacewa and especially Joe Schmidt have contributed to Leinster in recent times.


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