Irish ambitions mean O'Gara must start against scots
Published 19/02/2011 | 05:00
Back in the late 1970s and early '80s when the Campbell/Ward rivalry was all the rage, there was one indisputable fact: Ollie was No 1 and I was No 2. However, we did play together in the same team a number of times, whether in the pre-Christmas international, Five Nations or with Ireland on tour.
In those so-called experimental games (five I think in all), it was me at out-half with Ollie in the centre, although if memory serves me right he did start at full-back in one game in Australia in '79.
The general consensus was that he was the more adaptable. Needless to say, I wasn't complaining as it meant I could play in my favoured out-half position.
That reflected no stubbornness on my part as in the last two years of my career I shifted to centre alongside Brendan Mullin for Leinster, with Paul Dean in the main playmaking position for the province.
The latter years of my representative career were far from my best but they were in many ways my most enjoyable. And the reason? Game time. Plain and simple.
All you want to do as a player is play. There is nothing more soul-destroying than being a regular replacement. I don't know the stats but I would imagine I sat on the bench more often than the official number of times I played.
Substitutes had just about arrived back then, but, in line with the ethos, were used only in an emergency. I came on just once as a replacement (in place of Campbell) against England in Dublin in 1983.
Today is a different ball game entirely, with the use of substitutions at times a bad joke. The less said about Leo Cullen's six-second cameo against the French the better. It was an insult to the player and demeaning of the international honour.
The up side of tactical replacements (as opposed to the limited few, solely for injury in our day) is that all of the seven substitutes in the match-day 22 feel involved. In my day, the subs were guinea pigs in training -- and that's how we felt -- with only the remotest chance of playing.
I recall before a World Cup match in Wellington in 1987, the subs -- I was one of them -- being told quite literally to f**k off out of the dressing-room by the then coach in order to make more room for the real players. As it transpired, one of those subs was centre stage soon after kick-off.
Things have changed, but in one critical way it is the same now as it ever was and that is in how you prepare for a game psychologically when you know you are in the starting XV.
Life around the team hotel becomes so much more enjoyable when you are in from the off. That is why player management -- or, more specifically, coach sensitivity -- is so important. Now more than ever, it is about keeping the squad rather than the team happy. To that end, selection should reflect the needs of the squad above those of the team.
Declan Kidney is the type of coach who was not around in my time; one who understands and cares about the feelings of those in the camp who might feel marginalised. Ronan O'Gara is to Ward what Jonathan Sexton is to Campbell.
Sexton is the first-choice No 10 and I have no issue with that whatsoever, but I do feel the time is right to give O'Gara the Ireland start his consistent form for Munster and his replacement input in recent games deserves.
If Kidney is genuine in his desire to develop a degree of interchangeability at half-back (so essential ahead of the World Cup), he must exercise that principle now.
For that reason I believe a changed pairing of O'Gara and Eoin Reddan (for Sexton and Tomas O'Leary) would be the most sensible way to go against Scotland.
On both counts form justifies it -- Reddan for Leinster and O'Gara for Munster. In addition, whereas Reddan can link with Sexton and O'Gara with O'Leary/Peter Stringer on a regular basis, O'Gara and Reddan have few if any big-match opportunities as a combination. This week, opportunity knocks.
There is also the leadership factor. As one of the more experienced heads in the group and recognised as such along with Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and possibly Rory Best, O'Gara's status (given his role as replacement) has taken a knock in recent times.
It might do wonders for his confidence and morale in getting a starting call come Wednesday's team announcement.
Sexton knows the score and, anyway, a change will keep him on his toes, which is no bad thing.
For all those reasons, I believe the selection at out-half for Murrayfield to be central to the wider World Cup picture.
In the dim and distant past, international selection was mischievous to say the least. Now with 'Uno Duce' -- we all know Kidney picks the team -- it is utterly transparent.
May that transparency shine through for all the right reasons on Wednesday.