Hard to believe it's only a year ago now but it is nonetheless, give or take a fortnight. A year ago since Ronan O'Gara stood in front of us with the clock ticked just past midnight in the cold, bare mixed zone under the Stade de France and worked his way through questions you never dreamt you'd hear put to an Irish rugby player just an hour after a match.
Having to say straight out that he loved his wife and that he thought she loved him. That yeah, he liked a bet but no, he didn't have a gambling problem. Holding court on a world that didn't exist for him, a world built on jelly foundations of rumour and myth and half-truth. Trying to make sense of being the most talked-about man in Ireland for a week, the source of a nation's titillation in no-smoke-without-fire times.
Seems so long ago now. Since that night, he's captained Ireland for the first time, steered Munster through a winter without Paul O'Connell and walked up onto the podium in Cardiff alongside the great lock to lift the province's second Heineken Cup. He's played some of the rugby of his life at times, including a Saturday night in the Limerick rain back in January that moved Shaun Edwards to say that had he not been sitting in the Wasps dug-out for the duration of the game he'd have stood up and applauded.
He's had the man he first knew as a teacher in his new school almost 20 years ago ask his advice on whether or not to take the Ireland job and has had his temperature taken over Declan Kidney's subsequent replacement at Munster too. He's seen Eddie O'Sullivan leave, waved out the door by one of the limpest Irish performances in years, the embodiment of a bad time for a squad in a bad place. And he's come out the other side of it all to find himself heading into the last few laps of his career as happy in himself as he's ever been, enthralled – his word – by every new day.
Ireland's demise apart, none of us standing three deep at the barrier that night in Paris could have guessed at the year that was in the post for O'Gara. Maybe we were seeing what we wanted to see but right there and then, he looked and sounded like a man whose confidence had been smacked around the place just that bit too much this time. Like someone who was not only liable to throw his hat at the whole thing and walk away but who looked as though he might actually benefit from doing so. Shows what we know.
"I knew people were talking about these things," he says now. "It's amazing, because people have such a tendency to believe something when they hear it. If it had any effect on me, it's that I never believe a story I hear about anyone now – be they sporting people or non-sporting people – I never believe anything I hear until I hear it from them. Never. That's the one thing I've taken away from all this. It's very hard to differentiate between fact and fiction and if something's true, a fella will tell you himself."
His autobiography hit the shops on Thursday and everything's there for anyone who wants it. It opens with an episode that involved a tabloid reporter landing on his doorstep last February with a photographer in tow to ask his wife about their marriage supposedly breaking up. Later on, he lays out every rumour he's ever heard about himself and drives a stake through each of them. But put it to him that this setting straight of the record was the motivation for the book and he waves it away.
"No. Not at all, no. I'd be a bit of a believer in things happening for a reason. When you're out-half for Ireland, living in a small place like Cork, stuff like that is going to happen. You take it on the chin and move on. I don't hold a grudge against anybody who said a thing about me all through that time."
It's still a pretty sad state of affairs though, isn't it? "Well, if it had a big impact on my life then maybe I'd feel that way. It upset my wife at the time and I was upset for a few days myself but although it annoyed me, it doesn't cost me a thought now. I knew what the real story was so what other people thought didn't impact on me in any way.
"Like, I know people saw pictures of me on the TV during the anthems before the France game in the World Cup and they said I looked haunted by the whole thing. The truth is, I couldn't have felt any more the opposite of that at the time. I was excited by the game we were about to play. But how to do you explain that to people? People don't know me but they made their own assumptions about how I was feeling. I genuinely wasn't caught up in that rumour mill."
Even now though, he hardly needs telling that folk will insist they know what they know. He's made his peace with that too and indeed there are elements of the whole thing that he feels responsible for. An email went around a couple of years back, a photo of him boss-eyed drunk on a night out with his hand beneath the strap of a girl's top in a nightclub. It was altogether more innocent than it sounds and his wife was more angry with how hammered he was than anything else but coming as it did just a few months after they'd got married, it at the very least invited attention they could have done without.
He doesn't – and wouldn't – claim to be blameless when it comes to the gambling rumours either. He has no problem confirming that there was a time a few years ago when he'd have had a bet every day but there came a point when he decided to cut back on it and he's done that. It's something he gets a kick out of now rather than something he does.
"I never had any problem saying to anyone that I enjoy backing horses. I never had a problem with it – I won't be going on any TV shows giving the poor mouth about it. If you have a problem, you've got to address it and obviously some people need help with addictions and stuff like that. But that wouldn't be my style. I think it with anything in life, be it rugby or anything, you have to take the lessons on board yourself and do something about it."
But he was never in debt because of it, contrary to the bushfire tittle-tattle that went around. One story had it that he and JP McManus had agreed for him to miss kicks at goal against Llanelli in the 2007 Heineken Cup quarter-final so that together they'd back the Welsh side and pay off his rumoured six-figure debts. The two men have never been introduced.
"They were the rumours," he says. "It was what people were saying. So you can't say they weren't out there. But sure I've never met the man. From what I hear of him, he's a great man, very generous, and I admire him hugely. But these stories were going around that we'd conspired together to throw a game to clear my gambling debts. And I've never so much as shook his hand. What can you do?"
The question hangs in the air, neither seeking nor getting an answer. This is Ronan O'Gara at 31, older and wiser than he's ever been. His book is shot through with a sense of wry detachment, as if he's telling the story of someone who might be his kid brother and shaking his smiling head while doing so. He's the butt of the majority of his own jokes and anecdotes, the funniest of them being how an innocent introduction and handshake at the Old Head of Kinsale Golf Club one day in 2003 led to him having to explain to a very irate Eddie O'Sullivan a week later how exactly it was that the papers had him as the next kicker for the Miami Dolphins.
At the core of the yarn is the fact that a 25-year-old O'Gara was chancing his arm, trying to get a better contract out of the IRFU by filling the Evening Echo with talk of contact having been made by the NFL team. But then it snowballed, way more than he anticipated, to the point where one of the Sunday papers had the Dolphins offering him a $12m contract. He had to do some fast talking with O'Sullivan and Ireland team manager Brian O'Brien to diffuse the whole thing.
Funny how the world turns. Five years earlier, O'Sullivan had tried to recruit him to play for the US Eagles on account of him having been born in California. He gave it a fair bit of thought at the time but passed in the end, a decision both would have much to be grateful for in the future. They had a decent relationship through the years and he grew to be one of O'Sullivan's cornerstones, even if their respective natures guaranteed the odd piece of tectonic theatre.
"I worked hard with Eddie. If you have a problem with someone and you have disagreements with them, you sort it out face to face and you work it out with them. That's the way I'd be with anyone. You learn together and you work together and you forge a respect between each other. And that's exactly what it was.
"I don't like anyone in life that has problems with people and doesn't address it but instead bitches about them behind their back. I find that awful. I hope it comes across in the book that I respect Eddie and appreciate what he's done for me and my career. You don't just shit on a fella because he's gone. That's not right. If you've something to say, say it.
"That would be the way I'd be in life in general, you know? It's the best policy, definitely. If you're honest with people, they'll be honest with you and you both know exactly where you stand with each other."
For all their success as a group, the end of the O'Sullivan era was much more dreary and doleful than coach or players deserved. Beaten out the Twickenham gate by Danny Cipriani on a Saturday, informed in a group text from O'Sullivan that he'd be stepping down on the Wednesday. The Triple Crowns meant damn all by then, the wins over Australia and South Africa either. For O'Gara, the worst of it was that there was inevitability to it all by then, as if players were waiting to be taken out to the woodshed and put out of their misery.
"I think we were short on confidence as a squad near the end of Eddie's time," he says. "I think the England game epitomised that perfectly. When the pressure came on that day, we crumbled and that wouldn't be the typical Irish reaction or performance. But that was the last game and fellas just wanted to get away from the Irish camp. That was exactly the feeling at the time. That's so wrong but I felt that's where fellas were at the time. That's been addressed since then but that's the way we were on that day."
By the time everything had sorted itself out, that schoolteacher from all those years ago had led O'Gara and his friends to water, there to drink in another European Cup success before becoming Declan Kidney, Ireland coach. For O'Gara, the immediate difference around the place at Munster has been energising. Most of the faces have stayed the same but there is, he says, a freshness to the whole thing that has come from Tony McGahan down. It's come at exactly the right time for O'Gara too, a time in his life when staleness wouldn't need a lot of coaxing to come and wheedle its way in.
"The age profile of the squad is pretty experienced now. We're not a crowd of young fellas that need to be told everything. And Tony's approach is very much that what you do in your own time is your own business. When you're in, you're in to play and to do your job and when the day is over, your life is your own. There's no worries about how you live your life outside the game and he trusts the players that way. That kind of approach really suits me. It makes you take that bit more responsibility for yourself."
Responsibility for himself is all these days. He killed himself in the six months before the World Cup, keeping a ruthless eye on every last bite that went into his mouth, staying out of restaurants, not so much as having a glass of wine. After a while, he decided he was going overboard and sweating the small stuff to way too loony a degree. "I was obsessive and I eventually had to catch myself and ask myself if this was making me a better player. And it wasn't. It was making me paranoid and I was playing tricks on my own mind. I'm easier with that kind of thing now. It's my own responsibility and I like it that way."
Be that as it may, it doesn't stop him trusting his fate to his faith on occasion. He was reading the papers last Sunday before the Leinster game and he came across a quote from Tony Dungy, the first black man ever to coach a Super Bowl-winning team when leading the Indianapolis Colts to the title in 2007. "He said something along the lines of, 'Do your best and let God do the rest.' I thought that was very fitting on a Sunday morning the day of a big game. It kind of made me chill out.
"I definitely believe that God is playing a part in my life. I go and pray and say thanks whenever I can. I definitely feel that your career is shaped in a certain way and that God plays a role in it. He does for me anyway. I just believe in saying thanks for keeping me free from serious injury. It's no big deal to be honest but I think you have to appreciate what you've been given and understand that you've been given it. It can't all be take, take, take."
Spoken like a man wholly at peace with himself and the life he's made. There are likely to be at least another three years of this part of that life left in him and if the body holds up – which it has to a remarkable degree so far in his career when you consider how slight he was starting out – he'd love to be playing at the 2011 World Cup. He had a couple of opportunities to join French clubs down the years but the pull of home was always too strong and he reckons it's too late now. "You never know I suppose. But Jesus, it would take something extraordinary for me to leave Munster at this point."
And as for the future, he'll be a businessman of some hue one day. His own boss, whatever it is he gets into. He can see himself taking a break of at least a couple of years from rugby when he does finish up – the intensity of what are now effectively 48-week seasons is something he'll happily turn his back on once the last whistle goes.
Until then, people should enjoy him. Go along and watch him steer matches in the direction he wants them to go, the way his friend Ruby Walsh does with a nice three-mile chaser. Call him all the names under the sun before he flicks through the grubber that sits under the post waiting to be touched down for another win. Even go to the pub afterwards and pass on the latest yarn doing the rounds about him. He'd really rather you didn't but it's no skin off his nose either way.
That's what comes from deciding not to care about what people think they know.
International honours Triple Crown winner 2004, 2006, 2007; 84 caps; 835 points
Domestic honours AIL winner 1999; Heineken Cup winner 2006, 2008; Celtic League winner 2003, 2005; All-time leading scorer in the Heineken Cup (954 points); RTÉ Sports Personality of the Year 2004
Did you know? O'Gara became the first Irishman ever to score a try in?Croke Park when he touched down against France last February