RONAN O’GARA believes the mix in Ian McGeechan’s Lions squad could make the tour to South Africa the best six weeks of his career.
Describing McGeechan’s 37-man squad as one filled with “good characters” and confident young players, the Ireland out-half says if the Munster template of respect and friendship that makes the European champions such a successful entity can be replicated at Lions level, the tour can a real success.
“It’s no secret that a key ingredient in the success of Munster is the respect and friendship that exists between the players,” said O’Gara. “I think for the Lions to be at that optimum, we’re going to have to have the same relationship with no barriers.
“I think when you like a fellow, you put it in more for your team-mates. With the Lions that’s going to be our goal. From looking at the squad, it looks like there are going to be a good few characters there, a good few young fellows who really believe in their own ability — especially the young breed in the Irish player that’s coming through and I think that will be the same in the other countries.
“I’m excited by the tour because I think it looks like a real good squad — I think there are some exciting backs there, some hardy forwards. I think from what I know with Paul (O’Connell) as a captain, he’ll be so determined to make this tour a good tour because the 2005 tour was a terrible tour. I think that’s what makes me excited — the fact that this could be the best six weeks of my playing days.”
In the course of a glittering career, a Lions Test start has eluded the Munster man, even though he was on extended squads in Australia in 2001 and in New Zealand four years ago. But an older, wiser and eminently more rounded number 10 hopes to take care of some unfinished business by nailing down a spot against the Springboks in game seven on June 20.
“I came on as a sub in the last tour, but it would be an ultimate goal to make the Test XV. However, it’s not the be-all and end-all. At this stage I’m probably a little bit more mellow but have still huge drive in me. I’ve two young babies — that’s the most important thing in my life and then obviously the next thing is getting on the Test team for the Lions.
“I want to achieve things with Munster well before that so, I think at the minute, I’m in a great team with great opportunities and that’s what sport at the highest level is about — trying to take these opportunities.
“At this stage of my career it’s about winning the Test series. Trying to be involved in that you’re never too sure how it’ll work but you give yourself the best opportunity you can. At this stage of my career, I enjoy the games more, probably appreciate the games more. It’ll be a case of trying to get on the plane fit and healthy and then trying to get on the Test team.”
O’Gara says the Lions squad has been selected on form, and believes that is the criteria by which they’ll choose the Test out-half.
The competition to wear that jersey has lessened after O’Gara was selected alongside Wales’ Stephen Jones as the tour’s only two recognisable out-halves.
“The coaches could have ideas in their heads already (on who’ll wear No 10). I’m not privy to that information but all I know is that judging by what has happened in this selection that they’re going to be rewarding form. So the key is to try and maintain the form of the last few weeks going forward. There’s a great opportunity with Munster –that’s obviously what I’m looking at.”
O’Gara also expressed his delight at the inclusion of long-term friend and team-mate, Alan Quinlan.
“I talked to him (Quinlan) last week and he got thick with me for even mentioning it,” smiled O’Gara. “He thought I was slagging him. That’s typical Quinny. He and Keith Earls were dejected during the Six Nations; they were rooming together, wore numbers 23 and 24 in the Irish squad.
“The Munster coach (Tony McGahan) has really improved the skill level of the Munster squad, and they played exceptionally well against the Ospreys. WarrenGatland and Rob Howley were there and they obviously had a look and were impressed. Warren would know Quinny from his Irish days. Alan’s a character and could be a good tourist and these are the types of fellows you need.”
O’Gara’s Munster team-mate, Donncha O’Callaghan described his inclusion in McGeechan’s travelling party as a “huge honour”.
“It’s always a huge honour to be picked out as one of the elite of four countries, a massive honour. It’s something I don’t take for granted. I’m just so proud really.
“I’ll try not to sound like Deccie (Declan Kidney) but it’s one of those days where it’s for all your school teachers, underage coaches, people who put you in the position, guys down in Cork Con who helped you out — it’s a day for them to be really proud because they invested their time and being picked on a Lions squad is one of the greatest honours.”
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