It was the late Garrett Fitzgerald who made Munster one of the world’s best rugby clubs and instilled the values that forged lifelong bonds between former Munster players, according to Ronan O’Gara.
Munster legend O’Gara joined Duncan Casey and Duncan Williams on a special episode of the Duncan & Duncan Rugby podcast to remember a man who served as their boss during his 20-year spell as Munster CEO.
But that was never really how O’Gara saw him.
“I never looked upon Garrett as the CEO. He was Garrett. He was always there.
“He had a big title, or whatever, but to me he was just Garrett, one of the founding members of the journey that kickstarted in Bordeaux in that semi-final when we beat Toulouse.
“The biggest compliment I could give him is how he shaped the men. He shaped a lot of difficult characters into really good men.
“There were rough edges on a lot of us. But the great thing about Garrett and Munster was the values you learned around respect. And that stays with you. And that was very important.
“We had a few wild men in our team and a few fellas who needed discipline and a few others who needed their confidence built up. Garrett had huge patience too because he was dealing with Paulie (O’Connell) and myself a lot too and some of those meetings weren’t passive, should we say. But he always did what was best for Munster.”
Fitzgerald was at the helm as Munster emerged from the amateur era into a club ready to challenge for European titles.
“There was so much work done,” O’Gara said. “The best of the club men put aside their differences — Shannon, Con, the Cookies, Garryowen everyone — for the best for Munster. And it really became the first superclub. At first they were saying it’ll never work. But it was the likes of Garett who gelled it together.”
That work came to fruition when Munster claimed two Heineken Cups during Fitzgerald’s reign.
“I always say you got to enjoy the journey and he was on that journey for such a long time. Everyone who has worn that jersey has a really soft spot for him.
“I think Garrett was fair. He had a bloody tough job, but he was very very fair. You could also see the pride in him. He dropped his guard over the years a few times and I think that’s so important.
“I think it was just important to see what it meant to him in ‘06 and ‘08.”
Now the head coach of La Rochelle in France, O’Gara is grateful that Fitzgerald had the foresight not to draft him into a Munster coaching role following his retirement as a player.
“I‘ll always remember and be grateful that I retired as a player and didn’t go into the group as a coach. I always thank Garrett for that. I think it was such a wise move out of him, to separate it. Because you didn’t want your memories as a player tarnished by going into the staff and being too close to the players. Now I have all those memories of playing with those boys that aren’t spoiled or soured.”
And O’Gara is especially grateful for the friendships Fitzgerald helped him and his team-mates to build.
“The abiding memory with me is his passion for the game. He was very passionate. ‘Win the thing first and everything will look after itself,’ he used to say.
“Passion is often an overused word, but he absolutely loved Munster Rugby. He was doing his job but he wouldn’t have looked on it as a job.
“He knew when to keep his distance. He knew when the squad needed a word and needed discipline.
“He created a group of players, speaking for the squads I played in, who will be friends for the rest of their lives. That’s so important. We’re all spread throughout the word but the connection forged among the teams I played in is down to the values that essentially Garrett has created. Because you have to get direction from the top and he was the man who gave us that direction.
“He was there a long time but it’s not about time, it’s the quality you bring while you’re there. And he brought it in spades. There's a reason Munster is known as one of the best clubs in the world and it’s down to Garrett.
“It’s a bloody sad day.”