“I would have avoided Johnny and he would have avoided me.”
Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton are a unique duo.
Opposing fly-halves from one of rugby’s fiercest rivalries, Munster and Leinster, which gradually transformed into a battle for the Ireland number 10 jersey. O’Gara desperate to keep his spot, Sexton vying to take it from him.
However, upon the Munster man’s retirement in 2013, both O’Gara and Sexton found themselves at Racing 92, Sexton as their star player and his old adversary as his coach. Needless to say, that caught the attention of rugby followers all over the world.
Rather than further clashes and animosity, what developed was clear respect and friendship between the duo. Both men and their families moving to a different country with different languages and customs forged a bond while the absence of battle for the same jersey allowed both Sexton and O’Gara to work in tandem.
Images of the Irish men celebrating together in Racing colours were much different pictures than those that had been painted when they first came to blows in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final between Munster and Leinster.
“Our relationship started badly”, admitted O’Gara in his 2013 autobiography ‘Unguarded: My Life In Rugby’, written with Gerry Thornley.
“When he took to the pitch in that Munster-Leinster semi-final at Croke Park in 2009 I knew very little about him, if anything at all. He wasn’t really a big name at Leinster even though he had been around the scene for a while.”
If Sexton sensed that his opposing number deemed him irrelevant or a weakness following Felipe Contepomi’s departure from the field, he certainly set about making himself known.
“I can still picture Johnny standing over me screaming when they scored a try – clearly a release of frustration.
“Aside from having to wait for his chance with Leinster, I’d most definitely said something to him as well. It’s a pity I don’t recall what I said to fire him up, but as we all know now, it doesn’t take much.
“Certainly that scream was him announcing to the world ‘I’m here, and I’m here to stay’. And fair play to him. That’s what he’s done.
Later that year, with his first Heineken Cup medal under his belt, Johnny Sexton earned his first cap for Ireland against Fiji in the November Internationals. Then, in a move that created waves, Declan Kidney selected him ahead of O’Gara for their Test against South Africa.
Having endured a nightmare performance against the Springboks in the British & Irish Lions jersey that summer, O’Gara was desperate and determined to set the record straight and to have that opportunity taken away from him was devastating.
Sexton kicked five penalties that day but Kidney’s decision only added fuel to the fire of this already increasing rivalry.
“For the next couple of years, ours was the trickiest relationship I’ve ever experienced with any player. An out-half has to have a relationship with everyone in the squad, in different ways, from John Hayes to Brian Carney, with different jokes for different lads.
“But I would have avoided Johnny and he would have avoided me. I had my same spot on the bus all the time with the same fellas at the back, Johnny was nowhere to be seen, up at front on the left.”
O’Gara revealed that they dreaded kicking practice together with the young Leinster out-half often making excuses not to be there. On occasions, the Ireland head coach tried to intervene.
“Typically, Deccie landed the two of us in a room together when the tension was at its height. I just said to myself, ‘Oh my God, is this for real?’ I’d imagine it was worse for Johnny because I was more senior.
“When we were forced to room share, I don’t think he even stayed in the room. Maybe he did one night, but it was a two-night camp and he definitely wasn’t there for the second night.
“When we went for kicking practice, if there was another player around or kicking coach Mark Tainton, everything was rosy no problem. But neither myself nor Johnny were going to start a conversation. It was worse if Rala was there because Rala would be in the front, leaving the two of us in the back. Not even Rala could get us talking.
“Not even the Pope would have mended things at that stage.”
The animosity carried throughout the 2010 season and while the Munster cannot recall when exactly their relationship began to thaw, he stated that by the time the 2011 World Cup rolled around, their attitude towards one another had shifted.
“Time is a great healer in everything. It was probably played out in print, one of us reading a compliment made by one of us about the other or something like that. I suppose the more time you spend with a fella the more you appreciate what kind of person he is.”
Instead of being a battleground, Ireland camp was now an enjoyable experience for both players. Instead of opting to stay at home, Sexton stayed with the group in Carton House with O’Gara. On training days in the Aviva Stadium, the duo would spend an hour training together before a game of soccer with the groundsmen in the stadium. After that, they would wander across the road for lunch. An almost unimaginable scenario from just 12 months previous.
“Johnny’s clearly a very good player”, O’Gara wrote, “and I think he’s also becoming a very intelligent player, in pulling the right plays at the right time, which is a key attribute in becoming a great 10.
“That’s the route he wants to go and I think he will get there”.
O’Gara’s instincts were spot on, since the 2011 World Cup, Sexton has earned a plethora of medals including three further Heineken Champions Cups, one Grand Slam and three Six Nations Championships. He has also represented the Lions on two occasions before being awarded the ultimate honour with the tag of World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018.
No doubt his former enemy, rival, teammate, coach, and friend was cheering him on throughout.
Originally published on April 14, 2020.