Ronan O’Gara interview 26 March 2009

April 3, 2009

don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum’

THE right foot is encased in a white running shoe just this side of groovy, and obscured by a table leg.

One week ago, however, it was watched by all of Ireland. Ronan O’Gara’s late, late drop-goal ended six decades of disappointment to secure Ireland’s second-ever Grand Slam but now, however, he’s talking about last autumn, and his call for Irish players to buy into the jersey.

It was typical O’Gara: outspoken, rigorous, challenging, but always thinking of the team.

“Everyone can see that this team’s been different in this Six Nations compared to previous years,” he says. “We’ve been looking to ourselves to do that.

“But the reason you’d say these things isn’t for controversy. I’d say these things because time is ticking for me — when I hang up my boots I want to have medals, and it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to gather medals. That’s the critical difference.

“I don’t say things for the sake of getting opinions out there. I only comment when I feel there’s a valuable input to be made. I didn’t say those things to the media, either — I said it to the players, we had a few weeks to think about things, and then there was a meeting over Christmas and barriers were broken down.

“There was an honesty policy in the squad, and once that’s there you could see fellas in green play for each other similar to the way fellas in red play for each other. I haven’t been in an Irish camp where that’s been as prominent in a long while.”

Not surprisingly, he points to a fellow Corkman’s influence over the squad as critical. O’Gara acknowledges what Declan Kidney has brought to the table for Ireland.

“He’s brought in a new management team, a new squad — a lot of new players — and made everyone feel part of it. And at times that was even frustrating, because you might have 40 fellas at training and from a selfish point of view all I’d be really concerned with would be the first fifteen, or the match-day 22. It’s difficult enough to run that but Deccie was on about the squad and we got a great squad ethos going.

“He and his staff brought that, and that’s what separates him from other coaches, his ability to run a tight, friendly ship.

“He’s always been grounded, but I think he’s had a gradual progression, which probably helps — he’s had disappointments as well and he’s learned from them. And now he’s reaping the rewards.”

Rewards. There have been many suggestions that rugby in general and players in particular will benefit from the Grand Slam. Has the enormity of the win sunk in yet?

“Not at all. I don’t think there’s a realisation. I remember that it hit me for the first European Cup, but for this it took probably until Tuesday, and it seems to be getting sweeter every day.

“A few of us, probably led by Brian, Paul and myself, needed to win a Grand Slam to have credibility on a European or world stage. That would be something factual, rather than an opinion, about players; as much as people have opinions about players, what certain players have achieved is not up for debate, and this is something for the positive locker.

“It’s something that can’t be taken away. A nice feeling.”

The Ireland dressing-room after the win last Saturday wasn’t manic, he says, but suffused with an inner happiness. It was a mood in keeping with how the season had unfolded.

“There was no panic during the campaign, which was weird. There have been plenty of games in which myself and Paulie would have snapped at each other, but last Saturday with five minutes left he called the pattern of play, and it was a drop-goal pattern. No drama.

“That shows composure under pressure, because strictly speaking there should have been a bit of panic.”

OF the previous games, the most frustrating for O’Gara was the England clash, where he landed just two kicks out of six.

“That was the only one that was close, and that was down to me not kicking points. We were 10 points minimum a better team than them, and I never felt we were going to lose, but they got a last-minute try that put a different spin on the scoreboard.

“Afterwards I was disappointed and frustrated — and a little lost compared to other times in the past, when I knew what was going wrong.

“I’d say that week I’d taken over 100 kicks at goal and probably missed three. I was shocked — not from a cocky point of view — but if I’d known what to correct I’d have done it there and then.

“Maybe I was too relaxed against England. It’s a fascinating thing – I try to talk to a few people about it, and what I’d link goal-kicking to is golf. Line-kicking or kicking from the hand isn’t really like goal-kicking, and golfers have told me that during the season there are times when they’re not too sure when their drives are going, while other times it’s easy.

“It’s the same with goal-kicking — some days it’s easy, while other days you think you feel you’re doing the exact same thing but … as my dad says to me, though, you’re not a machine. The body feels different some days, and you just have to trust it.”

HE had to be trusted last Saturday. O’Gara has often been targeted by other teams, but Wales looked to send runners down his channel at every opportunity. Hardly a surprise, he says.

“No, it makes sense for them to go after me. Me, Brian (O’Driscoll), Gordon (D’Arcy) and Wally (David Wallace) are the line of four, so it doesn’t take a genius to work
out where to run. We do that,
too.

“Our coaches have a fair idea that we’ll know who to go after — (Stephen) Jones is a good defender but we went after him rather
than (Gavin) Henson or (Tom) Shanklin.”

Jones is a good kicker as well. As he lined up that potentially heart-breaking penalty from halfway with time all but up, his Irish counterpart felt exactly what Irish supporters everywhere felt.

“Sick. I don’t know if the occasion got to the ref, but we shouldn’t have won that game on penalty count alone, something
like 16-5, some of them bad decisions. The ref is such an important figure at this level, but that gives a team field position, territory — all important elements in a tight game.”

And what next?

“People are probably asking ‘where to for this team now’, but I can genuinely say this is a starting point – in terms of game planning, creativity, I don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum.”

Outspoken. Rigorous. Challenging. Always thinking of the team.

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