It’s 8.30 in the evening, and Ronan O’Gara can finally put his feet up, writes Bea Asprey. These days, after a hard training session, it’s straight home to help look after the kids – two-year-old twins Molly and Rua, and six-month-old JJ. These arrivals have given O’Gara an escape from rugby that he didn’t have before – as soon as he walks through the door he has to turn his attention to Peppa Pig and Fireman Sam – and he admits that is no bad thing.
Back on the pitch, however, the fly-half is the same competitive beast of old. He accepts nothing but the highest of standards when he runs out in a green jersey and says the mediocre results that Ireland produced in the autumn were simply not good enough. Having won a Grand Slam in 2009, he expects victory in this year’s RBS 6 Nations – and anything less simply will not wash. England and France must visit Dublin this year while Ireland travel to Rome, Edinburgh and Cardiff. But despite the majority of Ireland’s games being away from the Aviva Stadium, O’Gara is confident of challenging for the title.
“We should be trying to win the championship,” he says. “That’s the standard we set for ourselves and anything other than that will be hugely disappointing, especially after winning the Grand Slam the year before last. You can still have a successful season if you lose one game, but with England and France at home there’s a big chance of winning those. We’ve Italy, Scotland and Wales away and if you perform well, you have a chance of winning those games too.”
The loss to Scotland in Ireland’s final game at Croke Park sent them into a downward spiral for the rest of last season, and O’Gara believes the team can use that to motivate them throughout this tournament. He says: “Last year, losing to Scotland at home was a low point for the team and that’s unacceptable. We should be hurting from that performance and it should be fresh in our minds.”
Ireland will also be hoping for improved attendances at the Aviva Stadium following disappointing turnouts in November. A large crowd and an intimidating atmosphere could work to their advantage against the French and English. “Our supporters are going to be hugely important because when the team give them something to shout about I think they’re the best around,” says O’Gara. “A lot of rugby is played emotionally, and you draw on the crowd when things get tough, and when the pressure comes on the crowd can have a big effect on the game. That’s exactly what happens in Lansdowne Road, so the home crowd is a big plus.”
O’Gara has reached many milestones in his glittering career. He’s the all-time top point-scorer for Munster, Ireland and in the Heineken Cup, and last November he won his 100th Test cap when he came off the bench against South Africa. O’Gara has mixed feelings about that day as his achievement was marred by a frustrating performance by the team and while he brought some much-needed tempo to the game as a replacement, Ireland ultimately lost and he missed a late conversion in the 23-21 defeat. He is only the third Irishman to become a centurion after John Hayes and Brian O’Driscoll, but for a man at this stage of his career it’s no longer the taking part that counts.
“From a personal point of view it was a very proud moment, but you don’t play rugby for yourself, you play for the enjoyment and winning with your team-mates,” he says. “When you’re young and just starting out you’re just trying to accumulate caps and play for your country, but at my stage it’s all about winning.
“From the standards I’ve set for myself, and the experienced players in the team, we were disappointed with the autumn series because we’d hoped to beat South Africa and give New Zealand a rattle, but when you lose by 20 points, and at home too, it’s a big defeat.”
Having been a certain Ireland starter for many years, O’Gara is now playing second fiddle to Leinster’s Johnny Sexton. It was a hard pill to swallow at first, but he now enjoys the competition. And while he is contemplating retiring from Test rugby after the World Cup, he insists he will be around for a long while yet with Munster.
“You want to get to the World Cup in the best possible position and hopefully contribute to a successful competition for Ireland. Then you’d be looking at someone else coming through and hopefully wearing the Irish jersey with pride and conviction. I’d be looking at giving it everything to the World Cup and if I’m required after that all well and good, but if I’m not I’d be more than happy to move over. “I’ve years left at Munster. My body is in good shape, I’ve been very lucky with injuries, and I’ve a lot to offer and just want to repay how good they’ve been to me.”
O’Gara’s family hope to make the trip to the Aviva Stadium this month. “It’s cool when you think about it that you’re playing an International and your children are watching you. That’s something that as a young boy you’d never think would happen.”
This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine
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