Like a soldier who fought in the two World Wars, or one who soldiered in both Korea and Vietnam, Ronan O’Gara is also a battle hardened veteran of two great Irish rugby wars.
O’Gara's international career was book-ended by intense rivalries with fellow outhalves. It ended with the war with Johnny Sexton for the Irish number 10 jersey. It was a bitter and acrimonious fight until the two parties eventually settled their differences to become strong allies.
Prior to this however, O’Gara had fought with Ulster’s David Humphreys for the same jersey in the early to mid 2000s. The Munster man was victorious in the fight, and held the jersey until Sexton came along.
"One guy starts and is probably coming off if that isn't doing the job." These words from O'Gara sum up the pressure of the battle, knowing your rival is ready step in and take over your territory if you make one false move.
These words are taken from the magnificent and insightful documentary Ireland's Rugby Number 10 from BBC One, which tells the story of the numerous battles for the position throughout the years.
Mere minutes into the program we get a glimpse of O’Gara’s unwavering confidence and habit of speaking his mind, when he talks about the 10 position.
“The heroes, the legends that have worn this number”, he says proudly. “It’s a very special jersey. Maybe, I’m biased, the most special jersey in Irish rugby.”
Humphreys is simplistic in his reasoning on why he gravitated towards the outhalf position. “You get your hands on the ball a lot.”
This makes sense as Humphreys was more of a running 10 than O’Gara, with arguably a wider range of skills than his young successor. He wanted his hands on the ball to showcase these skills.
An Underrated Irish Rugby Legend?
The greatest player in the history of Irish rugby Brian O’Driscoll describes how Humphreys at times did not get the recognition he deserved.
In 1999, a week after Humphreys had experienced his greatest high of leading Ulster to Heineken Cup glory in Lansdowne Road, he missed an easy kick to lead Ireland to victory over France in the same stadium.
The next year, Ireland would defeat the French in the Stade De France in a game that is still remembered overwhelmingly for O’Driscoll’s hat-trick. However as O’Driscoll explains, Humphreys deserves a chunk of that praise.
“It’s pretty cruel to think that David Humphrey’s had such an instrumental role in that victory in France in 2000, and yet I got the vast majority of plaudits.”
What set O’Gara apart from most was his aggressive competitiveness, and while Humphreys had a reputation of being more reserved, O’Gara explains how this was not entirely true.
“It got heated at times. He was never going to go quietly, he was never going to give you the jersey. He was dogged, determined. Everyone thinks he is a gentleman, he is a gentleman, but there’s a ruthless side to him.”