In his own words Ronan O’Gara was “shocked” when Declan Kidney omitted him from the Irish squad.
“Rattled.” And seriously aggrieved.
“There’s politics in that decision” his father told him upon the news and O’Gara thought much the same. After all the rugby he’d played for Kidney and just coming off his best performance in months, to then be passed over for two young out-halves hardly anyone had ever heard of? Only their names weren’t Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan.
Rather they were an Emmet Farrell and a Richard Ormond.
It was back in O’Gara’s senior year at Pres when he was called up to Blackrock College to try out for an Irish schools selection that would play a touring Australia Schools. Kidney was team coach as well as O’Gara’s school coach in Pres and O’Gara was sure he’d select him as his first-choice out-half after scoring two tries and kicking splendidly for the Probables in the trial. Yet when the Australians came to town O’Gara found himself on the bench for an Irish B selection, watching Farrell and Ormond quarterback the respective Irish teams.
“It took me a long time to get over it,” he’d recall in his autobiography. “I remember Deccie trying to make jokes about it years later but I couldn’t laugh. I was still sore. That might sound crazy now given the career that I’ve had but it’s something I’ll never forget. That was the first time rugby had given me a savage kick in the teeth.”
Over the weekend, rugby and Kidney landed him another, surely his last at international level. If O’Gara was seething as an 18-year-old, we can only guess how he felt last weekend a full 18 years later. O’Gara’s relationship with Kidney has been strained for a while and though in time they may come to appreciate what all they achieved together, take it that this latest snub is something that Kidney will never dare to joke about with his former pupil.
Was this one a political decision? Kidney’s judgement can be open to question but hardly his motives, even if they may include an ambition to stay on for the 2015 World Cup. O’Gara’s form had been patchy up to his fine display for Munster last Saturday. It wasn’t how anyone wanted his international career to end but then few finish it precisely on their own terms, even the icons. For every Peter Canavan and Seamus Moynihan raising Sam moments before they waved goodbye, there’s a Donal Óg and Seán Óg who are told thanks but goodbye.
No matter what happens on Saturday O’Gara will remain this week’s story but in time the nature of his parting will fade into an irrelevance. Only trainspotters remember that Brian Whelehan was sent off in an All-Ireland final in his last game for Birr. When we think of Ali, we see him fighting Frazier, not Holmes. When we think of Jordan, we only see him in the red and white of Chicago, not the blue of the Washington Wizards.
The career, not the end of it, is what endures.
So it is with O’Gara. He was a lot like Jordan and Roy Keane. They intensely hated losing yet invariably learned from it. Jordan’s “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots” line is one of the most-cited quotes in modern sport but O’Gara had a similar outlook, realising after his display in the 2000 Heineken Cup final that there’d be days like that.
“It might seem like the end of the world, for a little while,” he’d write in his autobiography. “But you get on with it. You know there will be other days, other kicks.” Which is why he succeeded.
They were particularly fuelled by rejection in their formative years. For Keane it was being overlooked by all those cross-channel clubs. For Jordan it was being a high school sophomore and seeing his buddy Leroy Smith make the varsity team ahead of him.
Whether the names Emmet Farrell and Richard Ormond were similarly ingrained into O’Gara’s psyche, we don’t know.
What we do know is that he outlasted and outperformed them; Farrell, a Leinster Schools Senior Cup winner with Blackrock College, played a bit with the province at senior level before joining their backroom staff as a video analyst 10 years ago, while Ormond runs an IT company, his rugby days behind him for nearly a decade now.
Madigan and Jackson’s rugby careers will fare better than that pair’s, but hardly O’Gara’s. And they will certainly drive him. Reflecting on losing out to Farrell and Ormond, O’Gara would say, “I can see some good in it now. That was my first major setback... Ultimately setbacks either make you or break you and I think they’ve made me.”
This latest setback could make Munster’s Heineken Cup yet. As a great man once said, there will still be other days, other kicks.
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