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.
O’Gara brought us together in celebration of all that makes it good to be Irish and not for the first time. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.
That’s why we have to wish him well in his new life and thank him for the memories he provided in his old one. He deserves to succeed now, just as he succeeded with Ireland, Munster and Cork Constitution.
Thanks for the memories Ronan. And thanks for that night in Bristol.
(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)
RUGBY: Jonny Wilkinson still has something special, and the England World Cup winner proved it as Toulon won the Heineken Cup with a surprise win over fellow French side Clermont Auvergne in Dublin on Saturday. A lot was made of the fact that Wilko was left out of the Lions squad for the forthcoming tour to Australia – he couldn’t commit to the full itinerary – but on current form he is well worth a call-up in the event of an injury to any member of Warren Gatland’s back line.
HURLING: It is hard to believe, but the great Henry Shefflin won’t start Kilkenny’s opening Leinster SHC clash with Offaly in Tullamore next month. It’s the first time since 1999 that a Kilkenny team won’t feature King Henry in a championship game, an incredible statistic about a quite incredible player. Shefflin is confident he will be back for some part of Kilkenny’s championship campaign – knowing the Cats that will run all the way to the All-Ireland final in September.
GOLF: Funny incident involving new champion Graeme McDowell in the quarterfinals of the Volvo Matchplay in Bulgaria of all places on Saturday when opponent Nicolas Colsaerts hit his drive on the 10th over a toilet and into a water hazard. The Belgian had to drop his ball inside the bathroom on two occasions before he was allowed to place it in the rough behind the building. Now that’s what you call nearest point of relief!
GAA: There’s only one place to be this Sunday, and that’s Ballybofey for the Ulster SFC clash between All-Ireland champions Donegal and National League finalists Tyrone. A sell-out crowd and the historic needle between these two sides makes this the sporting occasion of the weekend if not one of the great games of the year so far. My money’s on Tyrone – not that Galway lived up to my expectations against Mayo last Sunday.
SOCCER: Bizarre goings-on at Stoke City, where devout Muslim Kenwyne Jones smashed the windscreen on Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan’s car after a pig’s head was left in his locker at the training ground. Jones has since apologized to Whelan and cleared him of any blame for the pig’s head incident, with the guilty party still to own up!
CYCLING: The weather in Europe has gone berserk. Not alone was it freezing in Ireland over the weekend, it also snowed in Italy, forcing the organisers to reschedule stages of the Giro d’Italia over the weekend and abandon scheduled hill climbs due to the volume of snow on the roads.
GAA: Kildare fans will probably know that Dermot Earley has joined the retirement bandwagon, and who can blame him? After his most recent back injury he could hardly walk. Not what a 34-year-old sportsman expects from his body.
RACING: Champion flat jockey Johnny Murtagh has been granted a trainer’s licence by the Irish Turf Club, so don’t be surprised if he’s is crowned Ireland’s top trainer in the future as well. He’s a born winner – like all Meath men!
SOCCER: Jose Mourinho will end the season without a trophy of any sort at Real Madrid. Little wonder then that he’s on his way out of the Bernabeu, probably to return to former club Chelsea.
HERO OF THE WEEK
RONAN O’Gara said his goodbyes to his Munster teammates last weekend after confirming that he is to take up a new role as a coach with the Paris-based club Racing Metro. O’Gara’s playing days with Munster and Ireland are over, but he leaves a hero after winning every honor possible with his club, his province and his country. He won many medals over the years, but the Heineken Cups he won with Munster and the Grand Slam he won for Ireland will never, ever be forgotten. Lucky enough to personally witness O’Gara at his best, I can only salute him and wish him well in his new life. He deserves to be a success as a coach.
IDIOT OF THE WEEK
REPORTS over the weekend suggested that some Cork City fans decided to aim racist taunts at the young Bray Wanderers striker Ishmahil Akinade during Friday night’s Airtricity League game at Turner’s Cross. Bray did their talking on the pitch with a 3-1 win, but those responsible for the sick attack on the youngster should be banned for life by Cork. There can be no place in Irish sport for racism, and City’s bosses must make that clear with their actions now.