George Hook: Brutal axing signals end of line for Ronan O’Gara
Published 21/02/2013 | 04:00
The old cliche that 'old soldiers never die, they just fade away' obviously does not apply to rugby players in the Declan Kidney regime. A few weeks ago, we saw the captaincy stripped from Brian O'Driscoll, but yesterday the news was much bigger.
Ronan O'Gara's outstanding career as Ireland fly-half was brought brutally to an end. What made it worse was that the news leaked out of the camp on Tuesday night. Once again we saw a major selection decision badly handled by the Irish management. O'Gara deserved that the public should hear of his demotion in the official press conference.
The discussion now will revolve around the reasons for the change at No 10, Kidney's mindset and whether Paddy Jackson can deliver on the biggest stage. It is 50 years since Ireland put such an inexperienced out-half and inside-centre combination in the field. In 1962 at Twickenham, Gerry Gilpin and Ray Hunter were part of nine new caps that were destroyed by England, who had Richard Sharp at fly-half.
There are reasons to believe that last weekend the coach had O'Gara in the frame for the Scottish match. What happened in Wales against the Scarlets clearly changed his mind. O'Gara was completely out of sorts, trying too hard and even looking tired. Kidney must have looked at the performance and said, "Oh s**t".
Jackson has not been the regular Ulster goalkicker since before Christmas. Surely if a week ago he was the heir presumptive to the No 10 shirt, then Kidney would have asked Mark Anscombe to allow Jackson to kick against Zebre, a match Ulster were never going to lose?
Jackson's ability to deliver at the top level is unproven. His implosion at Twickenham in last year's Heineken Cup final will be a worry for supporters, but the young man would not be the first to go from disaster to triumph and we can but wish him well.
There are more important issues than Jackson's kicking skills. At Ulster, partnered by Ruan Pienaar, Jackson has had the decision-making pressure lifted from him. With the neophyte Luke Marshall outside him this week, Murrayfield could be a lonely place.
One also gets the sense that Jackson's first instinct is to pass and that he does not, unlike Ian Madigan, threaten defences. A predictable Ireland could be easy meat for an average Scottish team that does know how to defend aggressively.
Madigan is the big loser and has suffered by being Jonathan Sexton's replacement, thus missing big-time experience. Despite having the best professional set-up in the world, the IRFU still does poor succession planning.
The prop story was a scandal but O'Gara's birth date was a matter of public record. The problem is that nobody thought about what would happen if Sexton was unavailable.
Meanwhile, O'Gara would not be human if he does not in his dreams this week see himself coming off the bench to save the day for Ireland. He has done it before, but the question is whether the 2013 version is up to the standards of the past.
For O'Gara, this is a disastrous decision. He is out of contract at the end of the season, and if now he is seen as surplus to requirements then the loss of a national contract would have severe implications.
Unlike Brian O'Driscoll, he is not a natural media performer and his post-rugby career is by no means secure.
It would speak volumes for the failure of Irish professional rugby if a man with 129 Test caps, a hero of so many contests and an icon for young people all over Ireland, might face uncertain times in retirement.
One has to wonder if the dip in O'Gara's form is not associated with natural worries about his future. His below-par performances at the 2007 World Cup in France came at a time when he came under huge scrutiny from the media.
The out-half on the Irish bench this weekend is a very proud man. He is tough as teak mentally and will not assume that the end of his career is nigh. In the remaining three games, fate will deal him a card. He must hope that it will be an ace rather than a joker.
For Kidney, it is a spectacular roll of the dice and smacks of a message to the higher authority that he still has the qualities to lead Ireland to the next World Cup.
His previous gamble with the captaincy is certainly not having the desired effect and a depleted team will need a special brand of heroics and morale to pull off a victory that a few short weeks ago seemed a certainty.