irishtimes.com - Last Updated: Sunday, November 7, 2010, 13:46

Empty feeling not lost on O'Gara

Rugby:  Ronan O’Gara has urged Ireland fans to defy the bleak economic climate and come out and support the team during the autumn internationals. Swathes of empty seats greeted the homecoming to the Aviva Stadium with only 35,515 tickets sold for yesterday’s 23-21 defeat by South Africa, over 16,000 short of the 51,700 capacity.

What should have been a momentous occasion to celebrate the test debut of the new Aviva Stadium instead descended into a PR disaster by the greed of the IRFU.

The IRFU last week apologised for their pricing strategy — tickets were only available in two-match packages costing €190 or €150— and were punished by spells of yesterday’s match being played against a backdrop of eerie silence.

It was an unsatisfying way for O’Gara to celebrate his 100th cap, even if his introduction from the bench with 15 minutes remaining did inspire a spirited fightback. O’Gara knows supporters are suffering during the recession, but confessed that the team needs their loyalty like never before.

“It’s strange . . . the whole economic situation has affected people really badly, more than people appreciate. It’s probably only going to get worse,” he said. “I don’t know how many were there yesterday but there were empty seats all over the stadium. It’s probably a sign of things to come.

“Next week I don’t know how many thousand will be there for Samoa . . . it’s reality and is something everyone has to look at in terms of getting pricing right. We need the supporters — it’s because of them that Ireland have been so good for so long.

“At the old Lansdowne Road there was an unbelievable atmosphere, so passionate and driven. We have to get those days back. Emotionally Ireland’s greatest tool has been their fans. They’ve been so good to this team and we need them back. We need them more than ever. We miss them.”

The mass of empty seats and a late assault on South Africa’s lead deflected attention from a poor performance by Ireland, who slumped to their fourth successive Test defeat, six in all matches.

Hammered at the set-piece, error-ridden in the loose and with a incoherent gameplan, they failed to justify their tag as firm favourites. South Africa, ravaged by injury, possessed minimal threat outside the pack and half-backs and were little more than muscular and efficient.

The wind and rain were offered as an explanation by captain Brian O’Driscoll for the number of handling mistakes, but from O’Gara’s vantage point on the bench there appeared a more fundamental problem.

“In the first half we played a lot of ball in difficult conditions,” said O’Gara. “With the talent we have sometimes we want to play ball all the time. We do have such good players in the backline. But in such wintry conditions like yesterday I think that sometimes you’re better off without the ball.

“It’s bitterly disappointing to lose. It was a strange game. It felt like it was there to be won but we didn’t win.”

That Ireland finished within two points of South Africa was down to O’Gara, who set up tries for Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney upon his late arrival. Presented with a near-touchline conversion of Kearney’s try to draw, he struck the right post and the Springboks expertly strangled the life out of the game in the last five minutes.

It was not quite the scripted ending to becoming Ireland’s third test centurion - all three have reached the milestone this year — but it nevertheless remained a special moment for O’Gara.

“I’m very proud to have won 100 caps. It’s great to have followed Brian O’Driscoll and John Hayes into the history books. They’re two good friends and great players,” he said. “I’m delighted to achieve it. It was a big day for my family and for Munster too. It’s a good achievement to reach 100 caps because very few players have done it. I’m very lucky.

“I enjoyed having an impact but it’s just a pity it didn’t change the outcome because I play sport to win.”

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