Ronan O'Gara's Last Dance With Ireland Still Stings, More Than A Decade Later

Ronan O'Gara's Last Dance With Ireland Still Stings, More Than A Decade Later

Eoin Harrington By Eoin Harrington

The date is Sunday February 24th 2013, and the location is Murrayfield, Edinburgh, as Ronan O'Gara takes the ball into hand with eight minutes remaining of a Six Nations match between Scotland and Ireland.

Ireland are one point down, and O'Gara has been brought off the bench in an attempt to swing things in Ireland's favour.

O'Gara, winning his 128th cap for Ireland, is about five metres in from the touchline as he collects a box kick from Scottish scrum half Greig Laidlaw. With the Irish team retreating from a ruck, and O'Gara already coming under pressure from the onrushing Scotland charge, his options are limited.

Nonetheless, he chooses the worst of the options ahead of him, and scuffs a kick into no-man's land in the middle of the pitch. The kick is collected by a Scottish player and, after a chaotic attack, a penalty is won which will put Scotland four points ahead.

Ireland would not score again, and would fall to a second defeat from three games in that year's Six Nations. It would also prove to be Ronan O'Gara's last major contribution in an Irish shirt.

Ronan O'Gara: Legendary out-half did not get Ireland send off he deserved

The following Sunday, seven days after the debacle in Murrayfield, O'Gara was at the Cork Opera House with his family seeing The Gruffalo's Child. In a story he recounts in his 2013 autobiography Unguarded, O'Gara was to receive a fateful phone call from Irish head coach Declan Kidney.


The previous night, O'Gara had played well in a Pro12 game for Munster against Ospreys, scoring three kicks in a 13-13 draw at Thomond Park. Despite his poor performance at Murrayfield, he felt he was a safe bet to stay in the Irish squad for the following week's Six Nations game at home against France, especially with first choice out-half Johnny Sexton out injured.

Ronan O'Gara Murrayfield 2013

24 February 2013; Ronan O'Gara, Ireland, kicks to touch. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Scotland. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

It had been a surprise ahead of the Scotland game at Murrayfield when Kidney chose uncapped Ulster out-half Paddy Jackson to start ahead of O'Gara, but the biggest shock was yet to come.

In Unguarded, O'Gara says he knew what was coming. If someone rings you and wants to speak face-to-face, you know it's probably not good news, and O'Gara says he knew to ask Kidney to cut the bullshit.

As he was leaving the Opera House with his wife and four children, O'Gara finally responded, after Kidney had twice attempted to ring him during the show. He humourously notes "Deccie obviously wasn't ringing me to tell me I was captain against France the following Saturday at the Aviva."


Kidney and O'Gara knew each other well. Kidney had first been assistant coach at Munster during O'Gara's early years with the province, and then with Ireland between 2002 and 2004. When Kidney returned to Munster as head coach in 2005, it led to the greatest period in the province's history, with O'Gara influential in two Heineken Cup years.

Now, Kidney was desperate to save his job as Ireland coach, in the final weeks of his contract, and O'Gara - aged 35 - was doggedly fighting for that Ireland #10 jersey, as he had for the past 13 years.

By the time of the fateful Gruffalo's Child outing of 2013, Kidney had been O'Gara's head coach at either club or international level for eight successive years.


Ronan O'Gara

24 May 2008; Munster's Ronan O'Gara celebrates with head coach Declan Kidney. Heineken Cup Final, Munster v Toulouse, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Kidney insisted on meeting O'Gara in person but, with a family day out taking precedence, and four young children eager to get on the move in the back seat, O'Gara couldn't find the time to meet him.


Knowing it wasn't going to be good news, O'Gara told his long-term coach that he could simply tell him over the phone. The following conversation is recorded in Unguarded, and is a mark of the man Ronan O'Gara remains:

Kidney: 'I don't have a place for you this weekend.'

O'Gara: 'OK. That's all right.'

Kidney: 'Do you want to ask me anything about it?'

O'Gara: 'Can I ask you, for my own head, why?'

Kidney: 'I don't think your form at the minute is good enough.'

O'Gara: 'Did you see the game last night [against Ospreys]?'

Kidney: 'Yeah, I was at the game.'

O'Gara: 'How did you think I went?'

Kidney: 'You went very well.'

O'Gara: 'Is that not the latest form?'

Kidney: 'It is, it is, but I thought Paddy [Jackson] went really well against Scotland.'

O'Gara: 'You thought he went really well against Scotland? Well, if that's how you think fair enough, you know. That's your opinion, but I wouldn't necessarily agree with going really well at Test level."

Kidney: 'Well, that's where we are.'

O'Gara: 'Grand. That's fine, I've nothing else to ask you.'

Paddy Jackson (1 cap) would start versus France, while Ian Madigan (0 caps) would sit on the bench.

Presentation Brothers College in Cork (Pres) was the site of many a young Munsterman's rugby education, including Peter O'Mahony, Simon Zebo and, of course, Ronan O'Gara. O'Gara was made Pres U-14 captain by Kidney during his school days, and now had his Ireland career drawn down over a phone call on speaker in the car with his family by the same man.

Of course it wasn't a decision without some justification. Though O'Gara continued to be crucial and a top performer for Munster, the province's powers were dwindling by this stage, and he had been comfortably surpassed at this stage by Johnny Sexton as Ireland's first choice at 10.

And, though it came in a dreadful team performance, in one of the worst Six Nations games in recent memory, O'Gara's cameo at Murrayfield may have been his worst single outing in an Ireland jersey. His kick directly led to Scotland pulling away in the lead, and a winnable game became a second successive defeat, in a campaign in which Ireland finished a dire 5th in the table with just one win.

Ronan O'Gara Johnny Sexton

17 September 2011; Ireland out-halves Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton look on during the game. 2011 Rugby World Cup, Pool C, Australia v Ireland, Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Going with Jackson over O'Gara for Scotland was nearly as big a surprise as leaving O'Gara out altogether two weeks later - indeed, Tom McGurk described it as the biggest selection gamble of Kidney's career in the pre-match coverage on RTÉ.

In RTÉ's 2014 ROG documentary, O'Gara remembered arriving at Carton House ahead of the Scotland game, feeling good about his place in the team, in the absence of Sexton. Despite all indications in the Monday morning training session pointing to O'Gara starting against Scotland, he says something "switched" in Kidney's head that afternoon - and he was out.


The manner in which O'Gara's voice cuts out when he remembers being dropped from the team is a testament to how much the decision shocked him - and he was not alone.

And then the killer line.

The fact that it's not Johnny Sexton playing. It's somebody else. Then it's very definite that you're finished.

A fortnight on from Edinburgh, the then-most capped player in Irish rugby history dropped from the bench for a pair of outhalves (Jackson and Ian Madigan) with a combined one cap between them.

Regardless of how poor O'Gara was off the bench at Murrayfield, Jackson was arguably worse. He had missed three crucial kicks that would have had Ireland in the lead before O'Gara even entered the field of play, and the Irish Independent called it a "debut to forget" in their player ratings, giving him a 4. Madigan was Leinster's second choice.

Ireland would draw 13-13 with France the following week, with Jackson missing two from five kicks, before a first ever defeat in Rome on the final day, losing 22-15 with a depleted squad.

The season ticked on, and O'Gara would have one last hurrah with Munster, scoring all of their points in the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins to drag a diminishing power into the last four. An away assignment against Clermont in the semi-final proved to be a step too far for Munster, and O'Gara announced his retirement from all forms of rugby at the end of the 2012-13 season.

Ronan O'Gara Scotland 2000

19 February 2000; Ronan O'Gara on his debut for Ireland. Six Nations Rugby International, Ireland v Scotland, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

O'Gara's first and last games for Ireland both came against Scotland. The fresh-faced 22-year-old who made his bow in that 2000 game at Lansdowne Road, alongside fellow debutants Peter Stringer and Shane Horgan, was described as "palpably nervous" by Gerry Thornley in his match report, with Thornley saying:

You felt for the kid, but you also know from past experience watching him that he has the mental strength to pull through such personal crises.

And he would pull through after set backs, on numerous occasions throughout his career. Later that year, he was largely to blame for Munster's one-point Heineken Cup final loss to Northampton, after missing five kicks at goal - including one in the last minute that would have won the game for Munster.

A year later, he was beaten to a pulp in a shocking assault by Duncan McRae while on duty with the Lions. He was part of the disastrous 2007 Rugby World Cup squad, which fought back to have an all-timer season in 2009. He even won his place back from Johnny Sexton, re-earning the favour of coach Declan Kidney during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. That year's World Cup quarter-final against Wales was the last international O'Gara started at 10 for Ireland.

Sport is full of cruel, abrupt goodbyes, but it seems almost unjust that Murrayfield was the international swansong for one of the world's greatest ever out-halves.

Ireland Scotland 2013

24 February 2013; Ireland players, from left, Peter O'Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Ronan O'Gara, Mike Ross, Luke Marshall, Rory Best, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien leave the pitch after defeat by Scotland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Scotland. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

For all that O'Gara had given to Ireland, at a time when the air around the team resembled something akin to headless chickens, his experience could have been invaluable. For him to have been dumped from the squad so acrimoniously after one poor game - in which his main competitor for the 10 jersey also had a stinker - was not what O'Gara deserved.

On form, sure, perhaps it makes sense to question O'Gara's place in the squad. But it was a symptom of the wider issues surrounding Irish rugby, and the truth was that Ireland's most experienced player of all time, and one of its greatest ever out-halves - if not its greatest out-half - was dropped in favour of an uncapped player who was playing back-up to Johnny Sexton at club level.

What would likely have hurt the most was that even when Sexton was forced out with injury midway through the 2013 tournament, O'Gara wasn't even trusted by Kidney to play third choice for Ireland. Whatever was (perhaps justifiably) made of O'Gara's form in 2013, that seems an extreme, harsh - maybe even cruel - way for one of the greatest players this country has produced to end his career.

Ironically, starting O’Gara against Scotland or having him on the bench for the France game in the following round would have only given Ireland a better chance of winning, but Kidney seemed intent on rolling the dice. 

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign did not recover from that Murrayfield collapse and Kidney was deposed a month later after a humiliating defeat to Italy.

Something about the whole thing leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, even a decade on. There is a lingering feeling, even if it is somewhat romantic and fanciful, that O'Gara deserved better at the end of it all.

Ronan O'Gara Clermont 2013

27 April 2013; Ronan O'Gara, Munster, gets some words of encouragement from his son Rua after the game. Heineken Cup Semi-Final 2012/13, ASM Clermont Auvergne v Munster, Stade de la Mosson, Montpellier, France. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

It is a measure of O'Gara as a man that he spoke kindly of Kidney when asked for his opinions on his sacking, a few weeks later:

I was omitted from the squad a couple of weeks ago and that’s really, really disappointing. And then Deccie got his news yesterday and I’m sure he’s hugely disappointed.

I know the man really well. He’s been there for my whole career so it would be remiss of me not to compliment him on what he’s achieved.

I’ve had mixed times with him — I’ve had some great times, I’ve had some challenging times but I respect the man and that’s exactly where I stand on the whole thing.

Touch of class at the end of it all, even when he was still hurting.

In a strange way, that's the nature of the beautiful thing we call sport - something O'Gara himself acknowledges in the 2014 RTÉ documentary. Even though he says through broken words that he is "staggered" by his last contribution for Ireland, and the pain is evident in his voice.

It's what happens in sport, it wasn't a good day. Now that I'm finished it's obviously nothing like I would have wanted it to finish, but that's sport. I've never thought about this and I've never said this but that's my last game for Ireland, is it? That's my last contribution...which is staggering, really.

Not everyone gets a perfect farewell, not even the greatest. And O'Gara has gone on to bigger and better things since retiring, arguably surpassing Kidney in ability as a coach. And, with time, that afternoon in Edinburgh, and the call at the Gruffalo's Child, have been forgotten by most, who prefer to focus on Cardiff '09, or countless Munster memories, as their memory of Ronan O'Gara.

Still though. Stings a bit.

SEE ALSO: Six Nations Coaches Reveal The One Player From Another Team They Would Pick

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