Heineken Heroes No 1: Ronan O'Gara
Regardless of provincial loyalties, when Irish rugby supporters think of the Heineken Cup, Munster are never far from those thoughts. And when you think of Munster, one player has been a mainstay in the professional era; out-half Ronan O’Gara.
By Declan Whooley
Selected in 2010 by the ERC as the player that has made the greatest contribution to European rugby during the previous 15 years, O'Gara's reputation has been cemented in the Heineken Cup where his tactical kicking has been as notable as his deadly accuracy in front of the posts.
Since making his debut in the competition, against Harlequins in September 1997, the Cork man has gone on to appear more often than any other player in the competition's history, with 104 appearances and counting. He also holds the record of most points with a tally of 1,298 putting him 429 points ahead of Stephen Jones in second place.
O'Gara in action during the 1998/99 season
He has remained an integral part of the Munster team from the early stages of the professional era, to near misses in Europe, to becoming double champions right through to the current period of transition under new coach Rob Penney.
O’Gara was part of the Munster teams that lost Heineken Cup finals in 2000 and 2002 to Northampton and Leicester respectively, as the public at large took this team to their hearts after some huge performances in the competition.
One game in particular, the Miracle Match against Gloucester in 2003, will go down in folklore and O’Gara was instrumental in the tie. Needing to win by 27 points and score four tries, his last minute conversion of the fourth try sealed a famous 33-6 win over a shell-shocked English outfit.
In 2006, O’Gara kicked one of the best penalties ever witnessed in the Heineken Cup. Trailing by a point to Premiership kingpins Leicester in the last minute at Welford Road, he landed the kick from inside his own half to seal a 21-19 win.
That season Munster finally landed their first European success after beating Biarritz in Cardiff, with the Cork Con man kicking 13 points on the day.
O'Gara in action against Biarritz
Two years later he captained the side to beat Wasps in the final pool game to knock the defending champions out as Munster marched onto another final in Cardiff against French opposition. Heineken Cup heavyweights Toulouse were beaten 16-13 with the out-half contributing 11 points.
In the 2008/09 group stages, Munster were trailing to Montabaun in their first Heineken Cup game in the new Thomond Park. With three minutes on the clock O’Gara stepped up as he had done so often in the past with a penalty to snatch a victory. It was also this season that his drop goal for Ireland against Wales in the Six Nations captured a first Grand Slam since 1948 in the most dramatic circumstances.
After winning the best European player in the professional era in 2010, O’Gara continued his remarkable consistency in a red jersey and last season was again full of personal highlights despite Munster’s campaign finishing with a home defeat at the hands of Ulster in the quarter-finals.
In November last year he scored an 84th minute drop-goal against Northampton to secure a most dramatic pool game. He put the finishing touches on the end of an amazing 41 phases of play and unbelievably scored a drop goal the following week in the 81st minute to beat Castres.
One of only two centurions in the competition, O’Gara has been the bedrock for Munster in the Heineken Cup and this weekend he should begin his 16th season in the competition. A true Heineken Hero if we ever saw one.