Hugh Farrelly: Sexton in the centre well worth a try
THE assertion in these pages on Tuesday that it was up to Jonathan Sexton to shake off the challenge of Ronan O'Gara for the Ireland No 10 jersey provoked some interesting responses. There were accusations of being unfair to Sexton for claiming he is struggling to nail down the out-half role, but other exhortations to "get off the Sexton bandwagon" for describing him as a fabulous player.
Both views are based in fact. Sexton is a superb out-half who has not managed to make himself an undisputed first choice for Ireland and, while he has produced some excellent performances in green, notably against England last year, the out-half slot remains a topic for debate. The Leinster No 10 went into the World Cup as first-choice, but, though he went well in general play, place-kicking issues saw O'Gara reclaim his status for the key matches against Italy and Wales.
Ireland are fortunate to have access to two top-class out-halves, but, as was stated on Tuesday, it cannot be easy for Sexton knowing there is such a high quality alternative poised to come in if his standards slip.
For years, O'Gara was unchallenged as Ireland's top 10, which provided an essential degree of security in that key position. It may be the case that it requires the Corkman to retire for Sexton to flourish consistently at international level. However, though he is now 34, O'Gara is playing as well as ever and his dedication and determination to continue at the highest level are an example to younger players.
Indeed, the Munsterman can justifiably question why he did not start last weekend's opening Six Nations assignment against Wales, given that he was first-choice after the World Cup and could not have done much more to push his case after a series of excellent displays for Munster.
Sexton had been going well for Leinster also, and deserved huge credit for playing on with an injured ankle during a tough Heineken Cup win in Glasgow, but O'Gara's dominant role in Munster's unbeaten march to the quarter-finals made a compelling argument for inclusion.
There were a variety of factors that contributed to Ireland's demoralising defeat to Wales last Sunday, but a lack of accuracy in kicking out of hand and off the tee did not help and O'Gara consistently excels in these areas.
He would never claim to be the world's most devastating runner or tackler (notable strengths in Sexton's game), but if Ireland are to have any chance of a second win in the French capital in 40 years, they have to play an effective territorial game and exploit every place-kicking opportunity they get.
That is O'Gara's turf, while his swift accurate passing provides considerable attacking potency when Ireland decide to go wide.
The solution to this conundrum came to the fore in the build-up to and during the World Cup win over Australia -- get both players on the park.
Though Sexton would obviously prefer to start in his favoured position, he is ideally suited to the requirements of a top-class centre. He has the strength, pace and playmaking abilities to prove an excellent foil to O'Gara in midfield, and not having to worry about goal-kicking would allow Sexton to get on with his game.
It represents a radical departure, but, with France widely expected to cruise to victory, there is also a 'nothing to lose' element to the fixture for Ireland, as it cannot be disputed that Wales were comprehensive winners of the midfield battle last weekend.
While the Sexton-O'Gara debate has been likened to the Ward-Campbell tussle in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the difference is that Ollie Campbell was installed at out-half ahead of the 1978 European Player of the Year, whereas this time around there has been no clear winner.
Ireland tried playing Ward and Campbell together with mixed results in 1981, but Sexton is far better suited to centre than Campbell, and pairing him with O'Gara could be just what Ireland need to save this campaign.