After weeks of counting down Heineken Cup legends, we have finally reached the conclusion. From tough tacklers to accurate outhalfs, our choice for number one rose above them all. No team was safe from this European rugby legend. Our choice as the Greatest Heineken Cup Player Of All Time is Munster maestro Ronan O’Gara.
No. 1 Ronan O’Gara
When it comes to Ronan O’Gara there is no middle ground. People either love him or hate him. Munster fans pay homage to the right foot of the outspoken Corkman who has amassed a tournament best (and by some distance) 1,365 points in Europe, while many Leinster fans will claim he never had the all round game to mark him out as a truly top player. Whatever your personal view of ROG is, there is no denying his status as the most influential player over the course of the 19 seasons of the Heineken Cup.
Munster’s fingerprints are all over Europe’s top tournament, they have been involved in so many of the competitions defining moments. Think back to the “Miracle Match” with Gloucester in 2003, or more recently the 41 phase drive that eventually led to the defeat of Northampton in 2011, and the swing of O’Gara’s boot remains central to these outcomes.
While the misses against Northampton in Munster’s first Heineken Cup Final defeat in 2001 were sure to haunt him, they also built his character and O’Gara has never shirked the responsibility of landing a decisive kick between the posts. This is reinforced by the fact he has successfully converted a tournament best 488 shots at goal, which is 175 more than second place Stephen Jones. O’Gara’s career has been forged off the back of his ability to step up when needed and that is highlighted no better than this clip from the aforementioned victory over Northampton at Thomond Park in 2011.
After nearly six minutes of watching his team edge forward, and with the clock sinking deeper and deeper into the red, O’Gara knew it was all coming down to him. The out half has precedent winning big games with a drop goal, Ireland sealed the Grand Slam with his drop goal against Wales in Cardiff in 2009. While ultimately his injury time heroics didn’t lead Munster to glory in 2011, it is one of the memories most will associate with him.
One of the negatives always laid at O’Gara’s door was his inability to impose himself physically on a game. In his 110 Heineken Cup outings (another competition record), he only crossed the whitewash on eight occasions. There were days when all the stars aligned however and this try in the victory over Leinster in 2006, during Munster’s march to their third final in five years, came when everything that could go right for the men in red did.
For a man whose life revolved around Munster, scoring this try against a Leinster side who were starting to emerge as a threatening force to Munster’s dominance of the Irish scene, clearly meant so much to ROG.
All throughout O’Gara’s sixteen-year European career he led the narrative of Munster’s underdog story. There was a fitting finale to his career in the famed red number 10 jersey, an agonisingly close defeat to Clermont in Montpellier at the semi-final stage of the 2013 competition. The out half had orchestrated so many victories on the road in France, yet Munster were never considered a genuine threat to a well drilled machine like Clermont. Like Colonel Custer, this was O’Gara’s last stand, and with his probing kicks and game management he led the resistance and helped keep the result in doubt right until the dying moments.
It isn’t just in Munster’s red that O’Gara enjoyed such longevity. In addition to his 110 European outings, he donned the fly half shirt a further 130 times for his province in domestic action. While he sits second to only Brian O’Driscoll in the list of Irish cap holders, with a remarkable 128. Never afraid to court controversy in the media, the San Diego born Leesider always backed it up on the field. The more intense the situation the more impressively he played.
Having retired at the end of the 2013 season, O’Gara can look back fondly on his career, gathering silverware throughout his 16 years as a professional player. He enjoyed many a joyous day in Munster red, lifting the Heineken Cup in 2006 and 2008 and winning the Celtic League four times. While he was key to Ireland’s Grand Slam success in 2009, his importance on the international stage was also reflected by the fact that he was three times chosen to travel with the British and Irish Lions, although he only appeared in two test matches.
Now tasked with improving the game of one-time nemesis Jonny Sexton in his role as a coach at Racing Metro, O’Gara must pass on the knowledge that has helped him accumulate of host of records, as well as an award in 2009 that recognised him as the best player of the first 15 years of the Heineken Cup. Nothing has changed in the meantime.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.