European highs and lows: O'Gara's final frontier

Saturday will mark the Corkman's seventh continental decider as both player and coach. The previous six have thrown up plenty of memories...
European highs and lows: O'Gara's final frontier

Finally getting his hands on it: Munster's Ronan O'Gara celebrates with Heineken Cup after the 2006 final against Biarritz Olympique at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Pic: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

2000: Northampton Saints 9 Munster 8 – Twickenham, January 27

The game that handed the fly-half, then a 22-year-old making just his 25th appearance for Munster, a miserable but career-shaping experience after four missed kicks from four, including one in the 79th minute. In a tight game, David Wallace scored the game’s only try and Jason Holland kicked a drop goal as Declan Kidney’s Munster took an 8-6 half-time lead but it was Saints’ Paul Grayson who won the goal-kicking battle, slotting three from three to allow Pat Lam to the lift the trophy for Northampton.

2002: Leicester Tigers 15 Munster 9 – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, May 25

Two years on from that chastening defeat in Munster’s first final, O’Gara had a more positive impact with three penalties to hit back after the defending champions had taken early control through tries from Geordan Murphy and Austin Healy.

O’Gara’s calmness off the tee put Munster within a converted try of winning their Heineken Cup after three consecutive semi-final appearances and an attacking scrum in front of the Leicester posts put Mick Galwey’s pack in position A to complete the comeback. Peter Stringer fed the ball in only for Neil Back to illegally swipe it onto Leicester’s side with referee Joel Jutge failing to spot what had taken place right in front of him. Tigers cleared their lines, retained possession and claimed back-to-back titles but it was very much a case of what might have been for O’Gara and Munster.

2006: Munster 23 Biarritz 19 – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, May 20

At last, Munster reach the promised land of European glory at the third attempt and O’Gara is front and centre. Trevor Halstead and Peter Stringer score the tries and the fly-half delivers a perfect return from the tee of five from five, two conversions and three penalties. A chip through for Anthony Horgan to run onto set in motion Halstead’s 17th-minute try that wiped out Sereli Bobo’s early opener and his conversion of Stringer’s in the 31st minute gave Munster a 17-10 half-time lead in the Welsh capital. The second half was a shootout between Biarritz’s Dmitri Yachvilli and O’Gara but it was the Corkman who closed the deal, his 73rd-minute penalty sealing the deal to the delight of more than 60,000 Munster supporters inside the Millennium.

2008: Munster 16 Toulouse 13 – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, May 24

Another kicking masterclass from O’Gara as Declan Kidney claims his and Munster’s second Heineken Cup in three seasons before leaving for the Ireland head coach’s job. The fly-half coolly kicks 11 points to back up Denis Leamy’s opening first-half try in an incredibly tense contest between these two European giants. Yves Donguy gives three-time champions Toulouse hope with a 54th-minute try with the conversion from Jean-Baptiste Elissalde levelling the scores at 13 apiece but O’Gara clinches victory with his third penalty of the game 15 minutes from time as Munster starve the French club of possession to close out the contest. O’Gara would finish his Heineken Cup career five years later as the competition’s top points scorer (1,365) and the European Player Award for 1995-2010.

2016: Saracens 21 Racing 92 9 - Grand Stade de Lyon, May 14

Three years after retiring as a player, O’Gara reaches his first European final as a coach, the defensive leader at Racing 92, whom he joined in 2013. The fates and a Saracens side at the peak of its powers conspire against the Parisians, who lose scrum-half general Maxime Machenaud to injury early and then saw Dan Carter limp off shortly after half-time. Saracens have a Chris Ashton try ruled out but it is the goal-kicking of Owen Farrell, with seven penalties that delivers a first of three Champions Cups in four seasons with a goal-kicking performance of which O’Gara would have proud.

2021: Toulouse 22 La Rochelle 17 – Twickenham, May 22

Back in France after two seasons with Super Rugby champions Crusaders in New Zealand, O’Gara’s first season as a head coach, under director of rugby Jono Gibbes, sees La Rochelle reach both the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals only to lose both to Toulouse. The Euro final again hinges on a significant early development as La Rochelle centre Levani Botia is shown a red card at a near-empty Twickenham with attendance capped at 10,000 due to Covid restrictions. Now in complete command as head coach, O’Gara gets another bite at the cherry in his seventh final in Marseille tomorrow.

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