Irish legends set for battle of wills in Euro Cup Final
SPOTLIGHT: Ronan O’Gara held off fellow legend Johnny Sexton for several years as Ireland’s number one flyhalf before finally conceding defeat – on Saturday he bids to deny his successor European club rugby’s biggest prize, the Champions Cup Trophy.
For La Rochelle coach O’Gara, victory in Marseille would be his third win having won two as a player with Munster, the bitter domestic rivals of Sexton’s Leinster.
Sexton, at 36, nine years younger than O’Gara, is hoping to get Leinster over the line and secure a record-equalling fifth Champions Cup trophy.
O’Gara masterminded La Rochelle’s semifinal victory over Leinster last year but that was against a side without Sexton in it.
As players, O’Gara and Sexton differed in style, the former a more conservative playmaker than the latter. Both, however, served their country well as they won Six Nations Grand Slams, in 2009 and 2018 respectively.
There is also a French connection between the two: when Sexton joined Racing 92 in 2013, spending two years in Paris, O’Gara had just joined the coaching staff there.
Their longevity in such a physical sport speaks volumes, not just for them but also for Ireland’s careful mothballing of their contracted players and a healthier diet in the era of professionalism.
O’Gara retired aged 36 but Sexton, in spite of a number of concussions, has committed himself to going on till the 2023 World Cup when he will be 38.
For former Ireland prop Marcus Horan – who like O’Gara was an integral part of Munster’s two European triumphs and a member of the 2009 Grand Slam side – their longevity is down to a passion for the game.
“If you have that love and passion it is easy to bounce out of bed in the morning,” the 44-year-old told AFP last year.
For Horan, a vital ingredient in both their stellar careers is a willingness to continue to learn.
“He [O’Gara] is a very adaptable guy and definitely evolving,” said Horan.
“His own career, he never felt he was the finished article. He would always be learning to do things differently and beg, borrow or steal ideas that were out there.
“He is a very open guy, which is a great trait to have.”
Sexton has described himself as a ‘sponge’ in his early days as a player especially with the national squad and although Horan spent less time with him he saw evidence of that.
Whilst it did not bother 67-times capped Horan it unnerved his fellow Munster prop John Hayes on their tour of New Zealand in 2010.
“He [Sexton)]was always very quiet in the changing room,” said Horan.
“This unsettled John Hayes who asked me why is he just sitting there and watching everyone.”
Horan says both O’Gara and Sexton as players shared that drive to be winners and took no prisoners even amongst their teammates if things did not go their way.
Horan, though, said O’Gara had changed since he became a coach, a journey which took him to Racing 92 in .
“I have been really impressed,” said Horan.
“In his time since retirement he has got a lot of empathy and it is clear from his manner with the players.
“He has probably done some self-analysis after being selfish as a player, for want of a better word, when he would not let anything stand in his way.
“As a coach you have to think of everybody else and from my standpoint, he has been on a journey of improving himself.”
Sexton’s desire to win and to contest refereeing decisions has led to criticism but Horan says that is just part of his nature.
“He is an unbelievably competitive guy who does not like losing. I think that is why some people love him and some hate him.
“When you are up there at a great height, people are throwing things at you and he has batted a lot of stuff away.”
Horan, though, adds as a counter-balance that Sexton’s stoicism also comes from self-criticism as he is his own “worse critic”.
“He epitomises the present Leinster squad,” added Horan.
“It is very easy to bounce back from tough stuff but there is that resilience in him when successful to come back and go again. I admire that in him particularly.”