Ronan O’Gara is used to personal and team accolades. A Grand Slam, four Triple Crowns, two Heineken Cups, three league titles and a Celtic Cup, and three Lions tours. He is Ireland’s record points scorer and most-capped out-half, top of the scoring ranks in the Six Nations and Heineken Cup, and the inaugural ERC European Player of the Year.
But Ireland’s failure to excel in Rugby World Cups is gnawing at him. At 34, Ronan O’Gara knows this is his final chance to help his country make a mark on rugby’s showpiece tournament.
Content with his form and Ireland’s pre-season work, he is clearly determined to make the world stand up and take notice of what Declan Kidney’s men can do at this level.
“The fact that this is my last World Cup is important. I’ve had a good career and made an impact at European level, but this is the elite level,” he said.
“It would be hugely fulfilling if I did have a role at world level and that’s a goal of mine. It’s taken a lot of us a fair bit of time to earn respect at European level, and it’s only when you win European Cups that you get that respect.
“At world level we haven’t done that and we don’t have the respect of people around the world.
“That’s fair enough because until you do you don’t deserve it. This team disappointed four years ago and in 2003, mentally we were a bit weak.
“We were delighted to beat Argentina and then there was a game to be won against Australia, yet we weren’t at the pitch mentally to win that.”
A lot has changed in Irish rugby since then. The provinces have thrived and winning silverware is now a regular occurrence. Kidney, who had Grand Slam success in his first season in charge, heads up a world class Ireland management team.
But O’Gara believes it is now time for the players to stand up and be counted in New Zealand, where their route to the quarter-finals includes clashes with Tri Nations champions Australia and Six Nations rivals Italy.
“This time around, it’s driven by the players. There have been different management, but there are a lot of us that realise it’s our last shot at something big,” he insisted.
“It’s important we go for that, as opposed to finding an excuse and coming home and one side winning a European Cup, because it’s not good enough. It’s limited compensation, because this is a completely different level.”
Ireland’s first training base in New Zealand, Queenstown, has been met with universal approval from the players as they prepare for their Pool C opener against the USA next Sunday.
O’Gara and fellow out-half Jonathan Sexton took a post-training dip in Lake Wakatipu today, with the temperature of the water usually around 10 to 15 degrees Celsius at this time of year.
Asked for his opinion on the resort town, the relaxed and refreshed Corkman said: “I didn’t expect Queenstown to be like this. I’d heard a lot about it, and it’s breathtaking once you’re here.
“It feels slightly surreal to come here for a Rugby World Cup, but it’s very pleasant. In Ireland we have plenty of beauty of our own, but the drive to training was stunning and we’ve been taken aback by it.”
Regarding the serious business of making sure Ireland advance to the knockout stages, something which they failed to achieve in France four years ago, O’Gara is relishing what lies ahead over the coming weeks.
“With the way the pool is, there is a big opportunity for us to progress yet it could be humiliating as well. It’s all to play for, and that’s what excites me as opposed to putting pressure on us. At this level anything is possible.
“There’s a great mood in the camp and we’re excited. It’s a tough pool but there are opportunities there as well. It’s important to get off to a good start and try to build momentum,” added the Munster ace, who earlier this year became only the fifth player to score over 1,000 international points.
Follow the Ireland team in New Zealand on www.twitter.com/irfurugby.