by Bernard Jackman
In elite sport, fairy tale endings are as rare as hens’ teeth. Athletes who have been the “go to” man or woman for their entire career can very suddenly find themselves on the physiotherapy table more and more often, or just getting less game time as their physical powers wane.
Dealing with that can be hard mentally and the prospect of having to enter the “real world” is daunting.
Where is Ronan O’Gara at on that journey?
With his contract up in June and no extension agreed yet, I expected him to see out the remaining two matches of the Competition in the squad as back up to Johnny Sexton and probably finish his career on the field in Rome in our last match against Italy.
He is one of those players other pros refer to as a “lifer” – a player who would be playing top level rugby for all his pro career.
He is Irelands most capped player with 128 caps and 1,083 points and has been an ever-present in the squad for the last 13 odd years.
Was it a mistake to leave him out against Scotland?
The fact is that O’Gara has gone from being number two before the England game to number four despite not starting a match.
"When French players speak about O’Gara they will grab their crotches and say Grande!" - Bernard Jackman
His experience could have been crucial in the absence of Jonathan Sexton and in hindsight he should have started that match. If he had, we would have kicked our goals and probably won the match quite comfortably.
When he did eventually replace Paddy Jackson, we had no kickable shot at goal and the Scots had realised it was better to play the game in our half rather than theirs.
That would have kept us in the hunt for the Championship and the outlook for this Irish squad and management would have been very different.
Much focus was placed on his “kick-pass” that led to the Scots final penalty and in hindsight, it was an error of judgement.
But O’Gara was and probably still is the most accurate kick-passer in the game and he was doing what he has done all his career. He backed himself. That is what you want in your out-half when the chips are down, and you have to accept the inevitable failures when they happen.
If the decision to leave him out was a form decision then it came just after O’Gara had played well for Munster against the Ospreys on Saturday. With Sexton unlikely to be fit this week I really hope Paddy Jackson or Ian Madigan don’t pull a calf in training this week.
Looking at how the situation has been handled, I think it was a mistake not to mention his exclusion in the Sunday night press release on the squad announcement.
While no one has a right to be named in any Irish squad, if you have contributed what Ronan has and you are been left out….well, a brief mention would have been a nice touch and the right thing to do in my opinion.
If he is still part of the Irish management’s plans and could yet be involved against Italy, why not say that in the release? Players know that they are replaceable but ink is cheap and the clubs and countries that deal with their players, both young and old, in the most respectful way are the ones that build the best culture and in the long run are the most successful.
In terms of how O’Gara is viewed elsewhere, I can say that he is unbelievably highly regarded here in France.
When French players or fans speak about O’Gara they will grab their crotches and say “Grande!”. They see him as the man for the big occasion and for the last 13 years in the Heineken Cup and for Ireland, they have admired his exploits.
I have no doubt that if he wanted a year in the Top 14, one of the big clubs would sign him. French rugby struggles to produce leaders and that is a large reason why you see so many older players continuing to play here when they would have been cut loose in other parts of the world.
Guys like Simon Shaw, Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson, and Nathan Hines are just a few examples of foreign players who extended their careers here.
France are not in a great place themselves either but the mindset here is very different this week compared to when they played England. The prospect of London frightened them and the match was probably lost before they got on the plane.
But they enjoy Dublin and the Irish squad this week, with players missing and after poor performances against England and Scotland, does not inspire the same level fear in the French public.
The pressure on both teams to deliver is massive and a vastly different kind of pressure that what both camps would have hoped for when they looked at the fixture lists before the Tournament.
Thoughts of Grand Slams and Trophies are long gone, salvaging what is left of the season is key.
Bernard Jackman is a former Leinster and Ireland hooker who now coaches in Grenoble in the French Top 14.