‘The Munster thing? There will never be anything like it’

THE external bruises from his date with the Cardiff Blues were there for all to see, steri-strips acting as a poor camouflage for yet another cut and bloodied right eye.

While it was superficial compared to the mess he was in after that unprovoked attack by Australia’s Duncan McRae on the 2001 Lions Tour, one senses the internal scars Ronan O’Gara is suffering since Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Biarritz are more acute than anything visible to the naked eye.

The only thing that has helped to lift the gloom of that poor performance at the Estadio Anoeta is the news that, much to his shock, the Munster out-half has received the singular honour of being named the European player of the past 15 years by the ERC.

Given the award takes into consideration the contributions of all those who have graced both the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups, it is a singularly unique and exceptional honour.

When I revealed to O’Gara that he had emerged from a final list of nominations that included such luminaries of the game as Fabien Pelous, Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, Yannick Jauzion, David Wallace and Emile N’Tamack – without a dissenting voice after a substantial debate amongst the selection panel – he was blown away.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s frightening when you actually think about it because it is a momentous award – absolutely huge. I am completely overwhelmed. I remember seeing the list of nominees and I was proud to be on the list. When you think about it, just look at Jauzion and Pelous from Toulouse alone, two very worthy candidates.

“An individual award in a team sport is on the back of the whole Munster organisation. That is the key point to me. It’s over 15 years. A lot of the fellows who helped set up my career like Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy in terms of teaching me the importance of being grounded. I will never forget the early years with them and others. I just came in when there were really special players playing for Munster, a key group of probably 10 players who have soldiered through all those games and this award is a mighty reflection on them.

“I am the one officially named, and I am deeply humbled, but I think I have to mention those players who are now retired, and I would like to think that I am receiving the award on their behalf and how proud Munster should be with their consistency of performance over such a long period of time. The Munster fitness staff have also been brilliant over the years and played a very important role too.”

O’Gara went on: “This is recognition of what Munster have given the tournament. People like Tom Kiernan have to be mentioned also for his role in developing this great competition. Without people like him, it wouldn’t have happened.

“I think Munster have got the recognition they deserve. The bond with the supporters is special. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s it was all GAA in Munster. Rugby is now a massive presence in this province and it has brought everyone together.

“I feel very privileged to pick up this award and I’m aware of all the people from Munster that I represent every time I play. That is something I am very passionate about. At times you get emotional about it, but you have to put that in check or else it affects your performance.”

Emotion hasn’t diluted his performance on many occasions, all the way back to a Heineken Cup debut along with Alan Quinlan and Anthony Horgan against Harlequins at the Stoop back in September 1997. To put that into context, Keith Earls was one month shy of his 10th birthday.

“Declan Kidney dropped Axel (Anthony Foley) for Greg Tuohy. We had maroon O’Neill’s tracksuits – we were like Bishopstown GAA club – I remember it very well actually. It was a great game, 48-40 to them. We were obviously the underdogs and it was all huge – new to me. As a young fellow I was dying to play. I think at that stage I wasn’t expecting to play because Killian Keane was in the squad and playing well. I remember Galliamh giving Woody a box.”

In terms of preparation and travel, how different was it to nowadays?

“We travelled two days in advance so we were over on a Thursday. It was a big event whereas now that would be looked on as too much, too early. We go the day before now and it still feels too long before kick-off. We trained at London Irish’s ground at Sunbury on the Thursday. I remember Claw nearly killed poor Ralph Murphy (the recently deceased former Munster branch president who was team secretary with Munster for years and in his 60’s at the time) who for some reason was holding a tackle bag. It was hugely exciting but the crowds were nothing like what was around nowadays.”

It may surprise some in the current context to learn that O’Gara only played the opening two games that season (Killian Keane returned to play in the remaining four games) and the following year the talented tyro played in the opener against Padova and didn’t appear in any of the other six Heineken Cup games – even though Munster got to the quarter-final against Colomiers with Barry Everett at out-half.

“It was the start of the mind games between myself and Declan Kidney,” O’Gara muses.

“I played against Padova, I think Neath was the next game, my hamstring wasn’t right but I wouldn’t give in, so Deccie being Deccie, he wouldn’t give in either and he put me through a gruelling fitness session but I couldn’t accept defeat. So I destroyed my hamstring trying to prove I was fit. I was just 20 at the time.

“When you’re young and naive and you’ve got the Munster number 10 jersey, you’ve got to think it’s yours and you think you’ve got to do everything to hold on to it.”

So in effect it cost him the whole season? “Yes, but it’s worth remembering that I wouldn’t have got my place as Barry Everett was shining for Munster that season. I was always playing catch up once I missed the pool stages. I’m sure I was probably back playing for Cork Con in the AIL.”

THE following season, however, O’Gara cemented his berth on the starting XV, a habit that’s been hard to break. Only injury has prised the number 10 shirt away from him.

“It’s something I’m proud of and it’s only when you’re left out of a side – like the Irish side this year – that you get that jolt of a reality check; not that I needed a reality check, it sharpens the mind and it sharpens your focus for whatever years are left.”

He’s nearer the twilight than the dawn nowadays and in quiet moments, he must consider his life without the high octane experience of European cup rugby?

“I don’t really want to think about that because it is something that gives you tingles because it is going to happen. I’m going to be on the other side, but I don’t want to think about that. I want to make sure that when I finish I’ve given it my best shot and I’ve given it everything.

“The Munster thing ... there will never be anything like it. Thomond Park on a Heineken Cup night is special. Some of the atmospheres have been unbelievable, the passion of the supporters. I think of what the game has given me. I will definitely give something back when it’s over. Quite what that will be, I don’t know.”

An oft-debated point is how near to Test match intensity does it get in the Heineken Cup? O’Gara has flourished in both arenas but acknowledges that the Heineken Cup has been fundamental in making him the player he is.

“It is the key building block. Go back to that Heineken Cup semi-final in Bordeaux against Toulouse in 2000, that’s when the whole thing took off. Everything was multiplied by 10, how good that performance was, the number of supporters there and that was the start of it.

“The reaction of the crowd in Twickenham when we lost to Northampton in the final was special. It would have been easy for everyone to say these boys are going nowhere but from then there was a loyal core that has got bigger and bigger every year.

“From a playing point of view, it’s great to know you are always going to have (hopefully) nine big games for Munster in the Heineken Cup. Three of those are at home in Thomond Park in the pool stages and if you play well in those there is a good chance that you will make the Irish team.”

The free-to-air debate engineered by Communications Minister Eamon Ryan – pushing for the Heineken Cup to be aired on terrestrial tv – has raised hackles in the professional game here, and O’Gara can see why.

“That and the withdrawal of the tax rebate would be very serious (for professional rugby) in this country. If those circumstances changed, a lot of players would be moving abroad.”

And speaking of which... “Yeah, I would have loved to play overseas but what makes me tick is winning silverware and when there’s a drive in a team, a camaraderie. Loyalty is a big thing for me and if I was to up and leave, I would feel hypocritical. Munster has given me everything and there is a group of players that are still hugely driven. That’s why I stay here, simple as that. Fantastic support too – you look at Thomond Park and think, ‘where else would you get that?’” Since the defeat in San Sebastian, the vultures are circling again, with the Munster pack their target. O’Gara hears the Dad’s Army jibes, and must occasionally wonder why, at 33, he’s not getting the same criticism. How many more seasons can he go on taking the kind of punishment Jamie Heaslip visited upon him on Saturday night at the RDS?

“I would say two years, and that’s it,” he says. Is that post World Cup? “The Ireland situation? I genuinely don’t know what the future is with that. With Munster I have definitely two seasons. I think I never suffered from having to be this and that, striving to be the best. But I think you become more focused when you know there’s a definite end.”

Quite how O’Gara could focus more intensely than he has for the past number of years makes you wonder. What is clear is that the man who has made the biggest impact on European rugby over the first 15 years of its existence is as hungry and as driven as ever in his quest for honours on both the European and international stage.

Both Munster and Ireland will be thrilled to hear that.

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