Ireland's heart - the mind of O'Gara

When Lansdowne Road reaches boiling point today, the cool head at No 10 will impose himself
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The Independent Online

Ronan O'Gara talks about kicking like it's tying his laces. "You try not to think about it too much," he says. "Sure, it's like clockwork at this stage."

Ronan O'Gara talks about kicking like it's tying his laces. "You try not to think about it too much," he says. "Sure, it's like clockwork at this stage."

Lately he's been as reliable as Swiss timing. He compares it to Tiger Woods taking a 10ft pressure putt. Instinct outwits anxiety. After-wards, Woods can never remember the shot. "That's exactly it," O'Gara says. "You can over-analyse sport. That happens when a sport goes professional. Fellas know so much about each other. But the beauty of a good player is that you still can't mark him completely out of a game.

"It's my goal-kicking that gets all the headlines. But there are so many other aspects to my game that have to be spot-on - there's restarts, line-kicking, territorial kicking, then open play. So kicking goals is just a small aspect of what I do and I don't get too carried away with it. You have to remember that the object is to put the ball between the sticks."

It comes as a surprise to hear that O'Gara, who will lead the team out when he wins his 50th cap today, hasn't been doing this all his life. At school he was a non-kicking outside-half - the confidence to do it didn't arrive until he went to college. "Ronan came to it latish," says his father, Fergal. "Ronan wouldn't have been the type to push himself forward. It was only when he went to university that he started experimenting. He just decided, 'I'll give this a try and see can I make a fist of it'."

The mental maturity came in tandem with the physical. He has beefed himself up in the gym, but once he was built like a whippet. When he joined Cork Constitution from college, many considered him too delicate for the hurly-burly of the All-Ireland League's top division. He proved them wrong. He delights in turning adversity around.

"There's an unbelievable amount of pressure on Ronan," says Paul O'Connell, the Ireland and Munster lock and O'Gara's unofficial minder. "So often it's the No 10 who gets the man of the match. It's usually when he kicks five out of five. But then another week he'll kick two out of five and there'll be calls for him to be dropped. It takes a lot of mental strength to deal with that."

A year ago at Twickenham O'Gara blazed a very kickable penalty wide early on. A player with weaker mental seams could have come apart. O'Gara had a stormer. "I would think that mental strength is something you're reared with," he says. "It's formed in your childhood and developed further along your sporting career. I was always competitive as a kid. I hated the losing side of things. And with experience, you learn that if things don't go right there's always an opportunity to get back into the game.

"I've made mistakes, but it's how you react to them that's important. A good case would be missing that first kick against England. I went on to have one of my best games for Ireland."

It was a case of just starting the game again. "I was angry for about 10 seconds," he says. "I couldn't believe it. I'd kicked well all week and I'd been telling myself, 'This is a nice opener'. Then it happened and it was disbelief for 10 seconds. But then you're straight back into the game. And you don't think about what happened before, you think about what you can do next."

The sports shrinks have done their work well; he did not always approach his work with such calm detachment. Early in his Ireland career the nerves would gnaw at him before a match. When the fans applauded the team through the lobby of the Berkeley Court, he would put his head down for fear of meeting anyone's eyes. "Nowadays I'm more confident and I enjoy it. If you can't enjoy a game like this weekend, then you're in the wrong jersey."

O'Gara might well have worn a jersey of a different colour had his father, a biotechnologist, not decided to come back from San Diego, where Ronan was born. The first ball he kicked was round. Not too long after he had taken his first steps he was sent to a summer "soccer school", where Rodney Marsh taught him, among other things, how to strike the ball cleanly.

After the family returned to Ireland and settled in Cork, Ronan threw himself into street-league hurling and Gaelic football, but his heart still belonged to football. He started supporting Liverpool when it was easy, and continued supporting them when it required some emotional investment.

When Ireland last played England in Dublin, David Humphreys was the No 10. In the Celtic League final, O'Gara had been a victim of a reckless boot, missed the start of the Six Nations and had to bide his time before he came back. But his performances in last year's Triple Crown win and the autumn victories over South Africa and Argentina have put the O'Gara-Humphreys issue to bed.

He has learnt to ride the bumps in what has been an undulating career. Missing the last-minute kick that would have won Munster the Heineken Cup in 2000; his poor kicking in the 2002 tour of New Zealand; having his eye blackened by Duncan McRae when with the Lions. What hasn't killed him has made him stronger.

"His mental strength is the best quality he has," says O'Connell. "He could have a bad game one day and it's water off a duck's back. He'd be reading out his own bad reviews in the paper to us, slagging himself off. Thankfully, for us, he rarely plays badly. He's a great talker, he organises things well, he's a great distributor, and just a great guy to have on your side."