The art of confusion
Published 17/03/2011 | 05:00
Who is Ireland's first-choice out-half? With five games to go until the start of the World Cup, we are still none the wiser after Jonathan Sexton was picked ahead of Ronan O'Gara for Saturday's showdown with England.
In such a pivotal position, it is not a situation that inspires confidence and is in stark contrast to the certainty of other World Cup contenders. New Zealand have Dan Carter, Australia look to Quade Cooper, England are starting Toby Flood with Jonny Wilkinson the designated cover and even the 'drop-meister' himself, France coach Marc Lievremont, has kept faith in Francois Trinh-Duc.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney has consistently referred to Ireland's good fortune at having two quality 10s to choose from, but surely it is time to make that choice. Continuing to swap between Sexton and O'Gara, irrespective of performance, breeds and spreads uncertainty through a squad whose Six Nations campaign has been defined by that quality.
Look at it from O'Gara's point of view. He comes off the bench to save the day against Italy, nearly does the same against France having been produced when the Irish were floundering, earns a starting spot against Scotland and then Wales and, despite performing strongly in both games, is hauled off early at which point Ireland go into free fall. Then he is dropped.
At 34 years of age and after 107 Ireland caps, O'Gara is entitled to feel a little bemused.
There are a couple of theories behind Sexton's inclusion. One is that, with nothing tangible to play for, Ireland can go for broke against the English and Sexton is the man for throwing caution to the wind. However, as was discussed here yesterday, O'Gara's record of masterminding attacking rugby is well established.
Another theory is that Sexton is starting to restore his confidence after a campaign where he has lacked his Leinster assurance, most obviously demonstrated by the skewed kick to touch which set up Wales' 'try' last weekend and then fluffing a penalty he would ordinarily slot without hesitation.
A third hypothesis is that Sexton's inclusion is on a rotational basis but, while the intensity of the Six Nations has natural uses as a World Cup testing ground, Ireland need a victory to instil self-belief after a campaign which captain Brian O'Driscoll yesterday described as "topsy-turvy" -- and all the evidence suggests that prerogative would be best served with O'Gara at 10.
Kidney explained the selection on the 'one game at a time' basis.
"I just looked at each game," said the Ireland coach. "I didn't come into the tournament saying 'well, it's going to be two there and two there and one for the end'. I just see it as it is at the time and that's the way I've made the decision.
"The more time fellahs get the chance to play with one another, the more consistency that will operate, so if you change things around all of the time, they won't know where they stand," he added.
"At the same time, you'd be foolish not to build a squad. You don't want the whole team depending on one player and if he falls down you have no one to take his place."
Kidney saying he does not want the team over-dependent on one player is the clearest indication as to his thinking at out-half. However, there are four World Cup warm-up games to keep Sexton ticking over and, with such a powerful need for a strong end to the championship, going with his form out-half would have been the logical move.
The out-half selection overshadowed the other personnel change to the match-22 which saw Andrew Trimble coming onto the left wing and Keith Earls switching to full-back with Luke Fitzgerald omitted from the squad.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for Fitzgerald, whose undoubted talents have been undermined by his discomfiture filling in for Rob Kearney at 15.
However, Trimble deserves his call-up after doing well for Ulster, while Earls is in superb form and the switch may provide even greater opportunity to utilise his running threat.
The concern would be that Earls has had his high ball issues in the past and with England certain to send their big centres (which look set include the 6'7" Matt Banahan in the injury-enforced absence of Mike Tindall) chasing garryowens, the last thing Ireland need is another Ireland player suffering a dent to his confidence.
"I think Luke is just unlucky to lose out," said Kidney. "His timing is just a small bit out, there's probably the odd overrun or just the timing with the boot or when the ball's in the air. That's just a slowing down process.
"He (Earls) is a player that hasn't been playing there regularly, but when you look around you get players who are playing well out on the pitch. Luke will be back -- that's not a forever decision."
There was plenty of talk about the threat posed by England, but this match hinges on how Ireland perform and how players react to this selection. Kidney's man-management skills are one of his main strengths and will be put to the test with O'Gara and Fitzgerald.
"All players are disappointed when they're left out," said Kidney. "They put their heart and soul into it so they're bound to be disappointed when they're left out. But they all trained very well and I can't speak highly enough of them the way they do their business on the training pitch."
Since he took over from Eddie O'Sullivan nearly three years ago, it has not been hard to back Kidney, based on a superb coaching record and a rational approach to progress.
However, this selection, especially the call out-half, has challenged that position in a way that can only be quelled by a convincing Grand Slam-denying performance on Saturday.