Favourites' fly-half O'Gara takes aim at the title

Munsterman's marvellous form helps heap expectation upon the men from the Emerald Isle. James Corrigan reports
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Once costly, now priceless; once flaky, now unflappable; once doubted, now ultra-reliable. The reinvention of Ronan O'Gara has been one of the more remarkable transformations in world sport in the past few years. Many are expecting this metamorphosis to be confirmed with a winning contribution in this Six Nations Championship and, who knows, even a World Cup beyond.

For his part, in the run-up to Ireland's opener in Cardiff on Sunday, O'Gara has remained uncharacteristically coy about any star performances that may be on his immediate schedule. While his captain, Brian O'Driscoll, has been hailing him as the northern hemisphere's answer to New Zealand's Dan Carter, the only thing O'Gara has been hailing is the metaphorical taxi as he has sought to distance himself from any big statements into which he could back himself.

"Listen, I know what I have to do, just like the rest of this Irish team knows what it has to do," he said at the team hotel, overlooking Dublin Bay. "What I will say, though, is that at this stage of my career I enjoy being mentally and physically challenged. It's funny, early on I would be nervous before big games but now I actually look forward to them. That wasn't the case in the past."

In O'Gara's case there are not many similarities between the then and the now. To equate the player then, whose missed kicks effectively lost Munster two Heineken Cup finals (against Northampton in 2000 and Leicester two years later), with the Heineken Cup winner now, whose unerring accuracy has carried Ireland to the status of Six Nations favourites, is some feat, for experts as well as fans.

So what brought about this improvement? For O'Driscoll it can be traced directly back to O'Gara's Heineken redemption against Biarritz last May - "that gave him so much confidence" - while others have suggested that the Test retirement of David Humphreys has freed him from the shackles of insecurity. All agree that his kicking is a revelation and the boy from Cork said: "I have a technique now that, at times, I feel is bullet proof."

"There is no secret," O'Gara whispered. "It's just down to bloody hard work." Most, if not all, of this hard labour has been done with the Ireland kicking coach, Mark Tainton. The West Countryman, who was something of a points-machine himself at Bristol, has worked with O'Gara for more than four years and in this time has helped to develop a process that can indeed deflect what used to be mortal wounds. "Ronan believes in it," Tainton said, "and even if he misses one he will carry on believing in it. He knows that ultimately it won't let him down."

The stats back up this faith. Up until 2005, O'Gara operated at a near 60 per cent success ratio for Ireland. In the past two years he has hiked it up to 80 per cent. "Like he says, it's because of all the commitment he's put in," said Tainton. "I'm not talking about ridiculous hours practising late into the night when everyone else is home in bed, but the amount of work he puts into our sessions. If, say, he takes 50 kicks at goal and 48 go over, afterwards he wants to go through the video and work out why the two went awry. That's what is so admirable about him - his willingness to learn and always to improve. He's after perfection and that applies to his kicking out of hand as well."

That last attribute is the most obvious quality of O'Gara's game. "Again, it was just a process of adjustment, getting him to visualise where he wanted to put the ball before he kicked it," Tainton said. "He's always been a very good punter, but we've just managed to get a little bit more distance and a little bit more speed through the air, which obviously makes it very difficult for back-three players to field.

"At the moment, in world terms, I can't see anyone to touch him. Sure, Carter is probably on par as a goal-kicker, but when it comes to tactical kicking Ronan is out there on his own. Saying that, he's not just a kicking fly-half, but has worked on everything to ensure he is a real all-rounder."

It is the last point O'Gara seems keen to emphasise, as he perhaps sees one part of his game being a victim of the success of the other. "The most pleasing thing for me is that the ball-in-hand is going as well as the ball-to-foot," the 29-year-old said. "I'm a lot more confident running with the ball and passing the ball and taking contact with the ball.

"It's probably down to a bit of speed work, which has been a major improvement. I'd have always been a slow gainer in the gym but I'm beginning to lift decent weights, which I wouldn't have said before. I'm probably in the best nick I've ever been. That definitely gives you confidence."

O'Gara's new assuredness has plainly whipped itself across the Ireland back-line and, for that matter, across the island as a whole. Tony Ward, the former Ireland fly-half and now a rugby writer for the Irish Independent, believes the side would feel the absence of O'Gara as much for the hands that split defences as the feet that split the uprights.

"Those who straightjacket him as a pure tactical kicker miss the point," Ward said. "In addition to the boot, O'Gara's greatest strength is his ability to offload long and deliciously weighted passes close to the gain line. He will consistently hit the appropriate space.

"O'Gara possesses hands made in heaven. His ability to weight his pass to perfection either inside or out is exceptional and should not be overlooked."

Neither should his tactical acumen be dismissed, the former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies said. "With men like O'Driscoll, [Gordon] D'Arcy and [Shane] Horgan outside him, it may seem strange to suggest it, but O'Gara could well be the player Eddie O'Sullivan [the Irish coach] would most fear being without," he said. "There is no experienced replacement ready to step in, so who's going to call the shots?

"I think it all comes down to the experience which gives you the confidence to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. It's what Stephen Jones contributes for Wales as well - this ability to shape matches and take command. O'Gara is a great decision-maker, knowing when to go for the corner, when to go aerial, when to go short with his pass, when to go long and even when to go himself.

"That's mostly down to being in different situations time and time again and the right option becoming second nature to you. Now, whether Humphreys' exit also gave him more confidence, in the fact that no one was perpetually on his shoulder any more, well, I don't know."

O'Gara thinks not. While Humphreys, the Ulsterman who quit the international game 12 months ago, was always O'Gara's big rival in the headlines, he was never quite that in the mind of the Munsterman. "To be honest, I haven't had a competition factor in my head for the last five years," O'Gara said.

"And that's no disrespect to David. But I wasn't look internally to Ireland for competition. My goals were always to try to feature on the European stage or the Lions front."

In short, O'Gara aimed high. Fittingly, that is where he now finds himself. "With Ronan's work ethic and talent it was question of when and not if," said Tainton. The when, it seems, is beginning right now.

North v South: O'Gara v Carter

Ronan O'Gara has been described by the Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll as the northern hemisphere's answer to Dan Carter. How do their records compare?

Ronan O'Gara

Age: 29

Provincial: Munster (1997-2007): 98 games, 1,203pts

International: Ireland (2000-07): 66 games, 607pts. British & Irish Lions (2001, 2005): 1 Test, 0pts

Dan Carter

Age: 24

State: Canterbury (2002-07): 19 games, 161pts

Super 14: Crusaders (2003-07): 37 games, 474pts

International: New Zealand (2003-07): 35 games, 540pts