Seeking absolution

Ronan O’Gara hopes to make amends for his brain explosion at Loftus when Ireland take on the Boks at Croke Park.

O'GaraIt was one of those moments that all sportsmen dread – the sort that makes you wish the earth would open under your feet. For Ronan O’Gara it meant that he went from Ireland Grand Slam hero to Lions zero overnight, and that a hard-earned reputation as one of the best flyhalves and tacticians in the game was damaged, perhaps irreparably. And, he admits, there has not been a day since when he has not thought of it.

If you were looking for a safe pair of hands, with the Lions in possession in their own 22, and the second Test locked at 25-25 after a dramatic Springbok comeback with less than a minute to go, then most of the red-shirted fans at Loftus would have put what remained of their credit-crunched savings on the Irishman – who had come on to relieve Jamie Roberts 12 minutes earlier – to have his game-head screwed on and kick the ball into the middle of Pretoria.

After all, this was O’Gara, the arch controller who had helped put Irish rugby back on the map, going into the tour having kicked a last-gasp drop goal against Wales in Cardiff to secure Ireland’s first Five/Six Nations Grand Slam for 61 years. The same O’Gara who had a treasure trove of elite experience behind him, having not only won 92 caps for his country but also scored 919 points in a decade in the green shirt, making him the fifth highest point-scorer in international rugby history, and the holder of almost every Irish point-scoring record. On top of that he had guided his beloved Munster to two European Cup titles, and established himself as the tournament’s top-scorer.

If O’Gara’s response to Morné Steyn’s speculative kick had been a half decent touchline clearance, the Lions would almost certainly have gone to Johannesburg for the final Test with the series still alive, but instead he gambled – some would argue in the tradition of the great touring side – and launched an up-and-under. However, his kick-chase, rather than that of an opportunist going for glory, looked almost instantaneously like an act of desperation, and, rather than launch himself upwards for the ball like Fourie du Preez did, he appeared to sleepwalk into a collision with the Springbok scrumhalf.

French referee Christophe Berdos awarded the penalty, and Steyn’s superb 53m kick put the bullet into the Lions in the last act of an epic match, clinching the series for the world champions and leaving O’Gara inconsolable after the final whistle. The flyhalf was in tears, staring into the middle distance, unwilling to talk to anyone.

It has plagued him ever since, and he has only recently been prepared to talk about the moment his sporting world turned on its head.

‘That’s sport at the top level, but it’s a situation of huge regret and embarrassment, and it has caused me months of anger and regret. I was playing well on the tour, but my 10 minutes in the Test jersey was definitely not reflective of me,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine.

However, even now that the dust has settled on the tour, O’Gara will not accept that it was a total lapse of judgement.

‘The big thing that annoyed me is that I took a really heavy blow to the head just before it, and I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I thought I went up to challenge for the ball, but the referee thought I had caught Fourie du Preez when he was in the air, and made his decision. But in relation to not kicking the ball out, no – I would still go for the win and put up the garryowen.’

Paul O’Connell and O’Gara go back a long way for Munster and Ireland, so what was said between the Lions captain and his flyhalf friend in the aftermath of such a brutal disappointment, and the lapse of judgement by O’Gara that led to it?

‘Emotions were all over the place. Paul was hurting badly – we let a big lead slip when we could have killed the game – but he didn’t actually say anything to me. You don’t need words of comfort. What happened couldn’t be changed. I’m mentally tough, but it still goes down in the history books.’

Picking himself up after such a body blow has been difficult, but as O’Gara eased himself back into action ahead of the European Cup, it seemed that the jumble of emotions were at last falling into place.

‘You have to think about it logically and analyse what happened. I was disappointed with the fact that I was dazed, and that as a result of what I did the Lions didn’t draw the match, and that it possibly cost the Lions a series. There is no hiding from that, and I don’t seek to. In my career there have been plenty of ups and downs, and that’s what you get when you have been around for 90-odd caps, but I’m privileged to have been part of a great tour which I enjoyed overall. They were a great bunch of lads who really bought into the Lions jersey.’

When you ask O’Gara how much it means to him to have another crack at South Africa so soon after playing them brought him to the nadir of his career, you can tell he is already switched on. He refuses to let his earlier, raw emotion into the response, preferring instead to stick to the straight and narrow.

‘When the game comes round it will be huge, very exciting.’ He gives himself a mental nudge, as he mulls over the likely absence of his new Munster team-mate – inside centre Jean de Villiers – from the Springbok line-up. ‘Playing with Jean alongside me gives it edge, but I don’t think he will be playing in the match. He’s such a classy player and they’ll miss him …’

However, although O’Gara at 32 is four years older than De Villiers, there is no sign that he has had his fill of the international arena.

‘Jeez, there’s so much left in the locker. The key is the enjoyment I get with Munster and Ireland. The core of the squads are the same, and there’s a bond there that goes way beyond the pitch. I’m lucky to make a living doing something I love.’
Then O’Gara, who lists sharing a winning dressing room as the best part of being a pro, gets to the core of what drives him on.

‘I’m hugely competitive – ruthlessly competitive. I just have to win, it’s as simple as that.’

You sense it is seeing the same trait in South Africa that makes him unstintingly generous in his appraisal of them.

‘They are a great team. They have done it all – a World Cup win, a Lions series, and now the Tri-Nations – and actions speak louder than words. They impress me hugely. They are so effective in what they do, are very well prepared, and play to their strengths. They also never think they are beaten.’

The flip-side of the praise is that O’Gara knows a bit about beating South Africa, having been on the winning side in the last two meetings between the teams, in 2004 and 2006 in Dublin.

‘Their Achilles heel is if you can keep the ball in play and tire out their tight five, but if you go from set piece to set piece against them, and let them dictate the tempo, then there’s not much chance.’

Yet, surprisingly, he is dismissive about the pre-World Cup Dublin double over the Boks.

SAR cover‘In one of those Tests the Springboks were wearing different coloured jerseys – white, I think, and it didn’t feel right – and the next time we changed our shirts …’

The colour-scheme stuff leaves you with the distinct impression that Ronan O’Gara doesn’t dwell on the two wins, even though they, like his Loftus lowpoint, are in the history books. For the moment they are mere statistics that he will not allow to intrude on the day of atonement he has planned for Croke Park.

By Nick Cain

– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine.