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Rugby ace Ronan O’Gara makes us proud to be Irish

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Ronan O'Gara celebrates with his Man of the Match medal after the Scotland vs. Ireland Six Nations match in 2011.
Ronan O'Gara celebrates with his Man of the Match 
medal after the Scotland vs. Ireland Six Nations match in 2011.
 

There’s a hotel outside a provincial airport in England that could easily belong in the comedy series starring fictitious radio presenter Alan Partridge – actor Steve Coogan’s alter ego -- but definitely belongs in the annals of Irish rugby history.

Those who own the aptly named Bristol Airport Hotel won’t know it, but they played host to a very special party on a March night in 2009.

It was a party that came back to life last Friday when news broke that the man who inspired it did what so many other great sporting heroes have done in recent weeks and announced his retirement.

Like Alex Ferguson, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, Ronan O’Gara is giving up his current role in professional sport.  Unlike the three Manchester United legends, he knows exactly what he is going to do next.

Rog, as Munster fans know him with such great affection, will start a new life in France this summer, not as a rugby player but as a kicking coach working with those who kick in the colors of Paris based club Racing Metro.

The fact that Ireland’s current number 10 Jonny Sexton, the man who effectively finished Ronan’s international career, is also on his way to a deal with Racing only adds to the intrigue of this particular story.

But that’s what’s going to happen. After 128 caps for Ireland, two caps for the Lions and 222 caps for Munster, O’Gara has decided at 36 years of age that enough is enough.

He could have carried on. Munster had offered him another year in the red shirt, another year to prove the doubters wrong.

There was talk not long ago of offers to finish his playing days in France, in a rugby mad land that has nothing but respect for his achievements on the field of play.

Instead of dragging his body through one more year of punishment, O’Gara has decided to take up his toughest challenge yet – life after rugby as a professional and as a winner.

He is going to test himself in a new environment. He is going to try to prove to the world that he can make it as coach, just as he made it as a player.

The omens for Ronan O’Gara the coach are good, it has to be said. As a player he was never the quickest. He was never the biggest.

He was the bravest.  And, critically, he was one of the greatest.

He made the best of what he had. He worked on his game. He perfected his kicking. And he had a brain that made the most of every opportunity that came his way.

Sure there were two Heineken Cup triumphs with Munster and Triple Crowns with Ireland, but that ability to take his chances was never more evident than on a March day in 2009, March 21 to be precise.

Declan Kidney’s Ireland had to win against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to seal a first Grand Slam in 61 years and the first of the Six Nations era.

They expected they could do it in their own minds and they were favorites to do it in some quarters, but it didn’t look good when Stephen Jones kicked the Welsh into a one point lead, 15-14, with less than a handful of minutes left on the stadium clock.

Ireland looked down and out, but no one told Ronan O’Gara. As Ireland took advantage of a poor kick-out on the full from Jones, Rog worked himself into the pocket that out-halves love to drop goals from.

His teammates duly provided the platform and O’Gara dropped the penalty that won the Grand Slam for Ireland.

That night, in the Bristol Airport hotel, a handful of Irishmen, including many who had never met before, celebrated an Ireland double as Bernard Dunne followed the rugby win with his one and only successful world title bout.

Thanks to O’Gara’s drop kick, a little part of Ireland celebrated on English soil on an unforgettable day for Irish sport.

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