Ronan O'Gara: Glutton for punishment in the land of Plenty

Ronan O'Gara tells Chris Hewett how he has bounced back from a pummelling on the last Lions tour to challenge for the outside-half place
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Since time immemorial, Lions outside-halves blessed with a strong sense of self-preservation - a description that applies to the vast majority of the breed, from Cliff Morgan and Barry John to Phil Bennett and Ollie Campbell - have spent their days in the southern hemisphere avoiding the hostile and frequently crippling attentions of muscle-bound open-side flankers, who were put on this earth specifically to reduce red-shirted No 10s to their component parts and bury them six feet under. Ronan O'Gara of Ireland approaches things a little differently, for the very good reason that he has more trouble dealing with players of his own kind.

Back in 2001, when O'Gara was a Lion in Australia, he was pummelled into the middle of the following week and most of the way back again by Duncan McRae of New South Wales, who now earns a living in the English Premiership as Gloucester's senior stand-off. (Afterwards, the New South Wales coach Bob Dwyer attempted to blame O'Gara for this extraordinary outbreak of hard-core violence, which was rather like blaming Ned Kelly's maiden aunt's pet wombat for a sudden surge of criminality in the bush). Needless to say, the Californian-born Munsterman from Cork has not quite managed to erase the incident from his mind.

"Fortunately, I played a match after that against the ACT Brumbies in Canberra, which was a bit of a classic - as good a game of rugby as I've ever been part of, probably," he recalled this week. "It was nice to leave Australia with a happy memory after getting my head thumped off me in Sydney."

Four years down the road and on the more distant side of the Tasman, he must now put up with a pummelling from a certain Jonny Wilkinson, not to mention two other outside-halves in the contrasting shapes of Stephen Jones and Charlie Hodgson, with whom he is contesting the Test berth against the All Blacks. This is nobody's idea of fun; indeed, O'Gara might have found it easier to go another 15 rounds with McRae than mix it with the insanely committed Wilkinson on the training field. What is more, most observers believe the contest is already over. Eighty per cent of the unusually knowledgeable New Zealand rugby public expect to see Wilkinson in Christchurch on 25 June, while the remaining 20 per cent believe Jones will get the ticket. It does not require much in the way of mathematical genius to work out that those backing O'Gara or Hodgson amount to a big fat zero.

O'Gara does not consider the situation to be cut and dried. Not for a minute. He has first crack of the whip in terms of chasing the Test shirt, having been chosen to start today's opening game with Bay of Plenty, and the way he figures it, a strong performance in front of 30,000 north islanders will force Sir Clive Woodward and his fellow coaches to abandon whatever preconceived ideas they may have been harbouring vis-à-vis the first meeting with the All Blacks.

"If it goes wrong for me in this game, I won't get another go," he said. "It's a simple matter of fact and I take it on board. The reality of this tour is that a poor display means you'll struggle to feature in any starting line-up for the rest of the trip. It's down to me to use that as a positive and as I'm in a positive mood anyway, I have no problem with that. I haven't done too much recently - I suffered a pretty serious knee injury playing for Munster in the Celtic League and I spent a long time wondering whether I'd be robbed of the chance of experiencing this tour - but my comeback game against Llanelli in the Celtic Cup final, my one match since the injury, was one of my better efforts. In fact, I felt sharper during that 80 minutes than at any time in the last three years."

He will need to feel good, for there is no doubt that Wilkinson and Jones are the front-runners for the games that really matter. This will not surprise a substantial majority of the rugby public, for O'Gara takes a fair bit of stick over the course of a season, especially on the British mainland, where folk remember his fragile goal-kicking performances in two Heineken Cup finals - against Northampton in 2000 and Leicester a couple of years later. Even in Ireland, opinion is divided. Many believe David Humphreys of Ulster should be the first-choice 10, and by no means all of them reside north of the border. O'Gara has been playing international rugby for five years now, but he has yet to win unquestioning acceptance.

Does he really believe the outside-half quartet on this tour start with a clean slate? "Yes, I do believe that," he replied. "Look, I'm as great an admirer of Jonny Wilkinson as anyone. Four years ago, I was not a contender for the Test position - not even in my own head - because Jonny was so far ahead of me.

"Back then, he was looking to improve in small percentages because his game was already outstanding, while I was looking at much bigger percentages. It's different now. I have my own strengths, I'm more up to scratch in more areas of my game and I'm more confident as a result. I have 50 Tests behind me now" [52, actually] "and the so-called stars of the world game don't faze me.

"Jonny opened my eyes with the things he was doing in 2001 and to be sure, he's still the standard-bearer. To get a place in the Test team, I'll have to prove myself the better man, and that will be tough. But while I respect the guy, I feel I'm in a better position this time round to challenge him.

'And anyway, there's a chance the selectors will play him in a different position, and that would change a lot of things. Until I'm told otherwise, I'll consider myself a contender."

It is indeed possible, if a trifle unlikely, that Woodward will run Wilkinson at inside-centre. If the All Blacks can consider playing Mils Muliaina, that wonderful full-back from Auckland, as an outside-centre in this series, there is no reason on earth why the Lions coaches should not think outside the box.

Injuries will also have their say in the coming weeks, so O'Gara is perfectly entitled to chase his dream until, as he says, someone very high up the tourists' chain of command informs him he is wasting his time.

Certainly, it would be good to see him fulfil himself, for at his best he can manage a game as well as the next man, even if the next man happens to be a genius of an oval-ball marksman from Newcastle. Having come so close to missing the tour - what he thought was a strained medial ligament in his knee turned out to be a torn cruciate ligament, and he was within a dozen hours of undergoing surgery that would have incapacitated him for a minimum of six months - the sporting gods may just decide to give him a leg-up.

"Had I gone through with the knee reconstruction, I'd have missed the tour for sure," he said. "But I was advised to consult one of the experts working with Paula Radcliffe, who was training in Limerick for the London Marathon, and I gave it a go.

"As far as I can tell, my recovery is complete. I suppose there will be some sort of reassessment when I get back home, but as things stand I don't even need any strapping when I train or play."

Did he do some running with Radcliffe during his rehabilitation? "Um, no. I think she'd have taken some catching," he replied. And how was her crash-tackling? "No comment."

During that unhappy tour of Wallaby territory in 2001 - a tour undermined by widespread discontent over a training regime bordering on the sadistic and the usual gripes over selection - O'Gara was too wide-eyed with excitement to plumb the depths of despair. Even when one of his eyes was shut by McRae, he did not mope around feeling sorry for himself. Personal expectations being rather greater this time, will he hit the ground harder should he fall?

"To be honest, this is an amazingly happy group of players," he said. "I've been completely surprised by the way people have gelled together so quickly. You normally have one or two difficult types on a trip like this and with a squad of this size, you might expect it even more. But at the moment, people are getting along just fine, and there is no feeling of things being forced. I hope it stays this way. If it does, it will be the tour of a lifetime."