George Hook: Sexton not best foil for unbalanced back-row
TOMORROW in the Aviva Stadium there will be a Six Nations international between Ireland and Wales, but there will also be a plot line of Shakespearian proportions bubbling beneath the green grass of the oldest rugby international ground in the world.
Warren Gatland views Ireland a little differently from any other encounter. Over the years since his abrupt departure from the Irish coaching set-up, his utterances have indicated that he still smarts from what he sees as his unfair treatment from the IRFU.
Meanwhile in the Irish camp, there will not be a player that does not want to set to rights their disastrous showing in the World Cup quarterfinal in Auckland. That defeat was more about the mental approach of Declan Kidney’s players than any strategic failure.
This time there will be no lack of focus. Irish teams throughout history have needed to be at full throttle to beat teams that have intrinsically better resources.
The loss of Keith Earls because of personal difficulties, while bad news for the player, may be good for the team. Fergus McFadden comes in to an All-Leinster midfield and that cohesion will mean a better defensive structure. Defending is about trust in those inside and outside and the Leinster trio will have that advantage.
Earls is a wing and a striker of international quality. In the centre he is an average passer and suspect defender. All too often he has proved true the Eddie O’Sullivan adage that defending is not about tackling, but tackling the right man.
Either way, Ireland’s defence will be set a severe test by what is probably the largest backline in the tournament’s history. Even mighty Jonah Lomu would be dwarfed by some of the Welsh three-quarters.
At the root of Ireland’s failure in New Zealand was the lack of a legitimate open-side flanker and the consequent neutering of Sean O’Brien’s power. The back-row dramatis personae remain essentially the same this time around and it is difficult to see a different result.
Wales will win the battle of the breakdown and Ireland will struggle to impose their game.
Kidney has decided that he needs a different fly-half to mastermind victory. It is a commentary on Ireland’s depth at No 10 and the paucity of resources at No 7 that the coach has made a change where we did not fail and left untouched the area where we did.
Ronan O’Gara’s form in the World Cup and the subsequent Heineken Cup demonstrated no reduction in his powers, and the coach has taken a risk in leaving the best tactical kicking game in the world on the bench in favour of a runner/passer Jonny Sexton when there is no certainty that the breakdown can be controlled.
Ireland start the game with two huge advantages. In the history of this great championship, home advantage has been crucial, and tomorrow it may be the tipping point.
Wales are also severely weakened by injuries. Half the World Cup pack is missing – three of the front five. One only needs to imagine we might feel if Kidney was forced to field a forward unit shorn of Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and Stephen Ferris.
Kidney is the third Irish coach in succession that has been less than proactive in the use of the bench. This time he has at his disposal two players that could change the dynamic of the contest.
O’Gara can close out the game or, as we have seen in European club competition, possess the courage to win the game at the death. Like him or love him, the Munster fly-half has nerves of steel under the greatest pressure. It may be needed tomorrow.
Wales and Gatland will be placing their hopes in Sam Warburton’s ability to deny O’Brien, Ferris and Jamie Heaslip go-forward ball.
Kidney could meet that challenge early by introducing Peter O’Mahony to the fray. The uncapped Munster man has showed this season that he has all the predatory instincts and disregard for personal safety essential to an open-side flanker.
My sense is that all will not go well for Ireland early on as the players struggle with the expectations of a home crowd and humiliation of Wellington. Captaincy will be vital and O’Connell must show for his country the leadership he routinely shows for his province.
The match will be dominated by a figure in the stand. Brian O’Driscoll is the greatest player of his generation, indeed any generation. Ireland must learn to do without him as player and captain as they did with Jack Kyle, Tommy Kiernan, WJ McBride and Fergus Slattery. I have a feeling they will tomorrow.