This fortnight Paul Fennessy highlights the Irish sporting public’s lack of appreciation for Ronan O’Gara and evaluates Ryan Shawcross’ infamous tackle
Last Saturday’s enthralling encounter between England and Ireland served as the perfect snapshot of Ronan O’Gara’s career to date. Having been written off by some critics, the Munster out-half’s conspicuous influence on proceedings – launching a vital tactical kick to touch and helping to turn the game in Ireland’s favour in the process – once again dispelled any lingering reservations regarding his ability.
There is an unusual tendency in this country to occasionally downplay success. Robbie Keane is criticised all too often, notwithstanding the fact that he is Ireland’s all-time leading goalscorer. Similarly, Padraig Harrington – unquestionably the greatest Irish golfer ever – has been the recipient of unwarranted disdain for having the supposed temerity to finish second on too many occasions.
Yet O’Gara is the starkest example of an Irish athlete who is unfairly derided by many followers of the rugby team. For someone who has been accused of possessing a lack of physicality and – for want of a better term – a lack of ‘bottle’, he has come an awful long way in international rugby.
Though many would disagree, I believe that O’Gara’s contribution to the Irish team over the past decade has been just as telling as that of his more revered peers – Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.
It is true that the rate at which O’Gara converts kicks has never matched a player of the calibre of Johnny Wilkinson at his magisterial best. Moreover, his ball-carrying skills are plainly inferior to other out-halves such as Stephen Jones. Nonetheless, his tactical kicking has been invariably sublime. Consequently, in an era when Irish rugby has enjoyed unprecedented success, O’Gara has masterminded many of Ireland’s most important victories.
Those who accuse O’Gara of wilting during big moments need only be reminded of the numerous late scores he has registered whilst under intense pressure for Ireland – including his drop-goal last year which secured Ireland that elusive Grand Slam. Consider also the crucial kick he delivered with consummate accuracy into the hands of an onrushing Shane Horgan during the historic 2007 Croke Park win against England, or his peerless display scoring all seventeen points in our memorable 2004 victory over the Springboks.
Of course, for anyone with a career as lengthy as O’Gara’s, low points are inevitable. He performed poorly at the last World Cup – but then the same can be said of every Irish player. His brief cameo for the Lions last summer was also mired by lamentable errors. Nevertheless, it must be said that the Lions management’s patent lack of trust in O’Gara – only introducing him into the action when other alternatives had been exhausted – could hardly have been beneficial to his confidence.
However, a player does not become the record points scorer for both Munster and Ireland – in addition to being the highest Six Nations points scorer ever – without possessing copious levels of self-belief and resilience.
Some critics, though, have continued to question O’Gara’s reliability. Indeed, many observers would have undoubtedly baulked at the decision to introduce him in the dying stages of the game last Saturday.
Nonetheless, O’Gara proved his doubters wrong for the umpteenth occasion. Despite rarely even touching the ball during the contest, he only required one opportunity to demonstrate his class. The American-born out-half’s exquisite kick to touch provided the foundation for Tommy Bowe’s winning try, as O’Gara displayed the guile which Ireland had often lacked in the preceding stages of the match, in spite of Johnny Sexton’s respectable performance.
Therefore, while Sexton has thus far displayed enormous potential, he is by no means representative of the finished article just yet – a point which was vividly illustrated by his erratic kicking prior to his substitution.
O’Gara’s age and Sexton’s recent impressive form has rendered the latter more likely to figure in Ireland’s World Cup campaign next year. But I would be disinclined to dismiss the chances of O’Gara substantially adding to the 96 caps which he has acquired at the time of writing.
However, even if the Munster legend fails to preserve his international career much longer, Sexton still has a long way to go before he can warrant the level of respect that O’Gara has surely earned.
It is always saddening to see a player of such tremendous talent as Aaron Ramsey suffering a horrific injury. There have been analogous instances in the past – most notably Roy Keane’s callous assault on Alf-Inge Haaland – where footballers have deliberately injured a fellow professional. However, Ryan Shawcross’ tackle last Saturday – sickening as it was to watch – was at worst extremely careless. Shawcross’ genuinely distraught reaction to his challenge confirmed the absence of malice in this incident.
Arsene Wenger has pointed out that his team have been the victim of similar occurrences on two separate occasions. But this unfortunate statistic can primarily be attributed to the wealth of possession which Arsenal routinely enjoy against their opponents, in addition to the incredible speed they employ whilst attacking other teams. Wenger, therefore, is wrong to blame referees and opposition players for what are generally unavoidable accidents. Consequently, Shawcross does not merit undue scorn for his actions.