Time to kick O'Gara's conservative tag into touch
Published 16/03/2011 | 05:00
Someone once noted that perception is strong and sight is weak and that is certainly the case with the Irish rugby team during this confusing Six Nations championship campaign.
Judging by some of the reaction to last Saturday's defeat in Wales, the perception for many is of a squad in disarray and yet proper viewing reveals encouraging progress in foundation areas such as scrum, line-out, kick-offs, defence and discipline that were previously causes of concern.
The problem is that, while these aspects of Ireland's play have undeniably come on as the championship has progressed, this is still a team somewhat at odds with itself and time is running out for the "pieces of the jigsaw" to come together.
Declan Kidney will name his team to play their final Six Nations encounter against Grand Slam-chasing England this afternoon and, once again, much debate centres on who should play out-half. In this position more than any other on the Irish team, perception is clouding the reality.
The perception is that Ronan O'Gara is the conservative kicking choice and Jonathan Sexton the expressive running option who struggles with the territory game -- both are untrue.
This is not a new situation for Irish rugby. In the late 1970s, Tony Ward was regarded as the mercurial, jinking out-half who could unlock defences with a spark of genius but could not control a match in the manner of his great rival Ollie Campbell, seen as the steadier option.
Yet, Ward was a beautiful striker of the rugby ball, more than capable of pinning opponents back with tactical kicking (as the All Blacks would readily testify following their 1978 defeat at Thomond Park), while Campbell was as incisive a runner as kicker.
O'Gara forged his reputation playing for territory and points behind a powerful Munster pack, landing two Heineken Cups in the process and he played a similarly successful, pragmatic game when masterminding Ireland's Grand Slam two years ago.
However, while one of the best in the world at kicking for the corners and keeping his pack moving forward, the Corkman is equally comfortable with the attacking game.
His career statistic of 163 conversions in 107 Ireland appearances tells not only of place-kicking prowess but also gives an indication of the amount of tries that were scored on the out-half's watch.
Furthermore, O'Gara's personal try tally of 16 tries is a pretty healthy return for an out-half who supposedly cannot run with the ball.
However, the biggest attacking weapon in O'Gara's arsenal is his passing, which is as long, flat and accurate as any in the world game.
Last Saturday, Brian O'Driscoll took his Ireland try tally to 43, equalling the championship record of 24 in the process. You do not achieve those sort of scoring returns playing, for the vast majority of your international career, outside an out-half who cannot set you free.
O'Gara also regularly uses his right foot as an offensive weapon. Doug Howlett has benefited hugely from this for Munster and two of Ireland's more notable tries over the past few years came from beautifully judged O'Gara cross-kicks -- to Shane Horgan in the win over England at Croke Park in 2007 and to Tommy Bowe when Ireland landed the Grand Slam against Wales in 2009.
Sexton has shown, for Leinster and Ireland, that he is well capable of controlling a match O'Gara-style when he is required to do so.
In his first major start for Ireland against South Africa in November 2009, he kicked adroitly to keep the Springboks on the back foot and he was similarly efficient in the victories over England and Wales the following spring.
Against France in this year's championship, Sexton's game management was not perfect but he was the starting point for some flowing backline moves in a match where Ireland scored three tries.
Ireland tried to accommodate both Ward and Campbell in the early 1980s with mixed results as neither player was a natural centre.
Sexton is a player who could slot in successfully at 12 and provide a second playmaker option outside O'Gara the way Paul Warwick has done on occasion with Munster.
However, with five games to go to the start of Ireland's World Cup campaign, that may be too radical a selection move to countenance.
The St Mary's man is quicker and stronger than O'Gara running with possession and is the natural successor to the Munster out-half beyond the World Cup. However, the key point is that, a decision on out-half has to be made now and, whoever Kidney decides on, that man has to be left on the pitch to get the job done. Withdrawing O'Gara early nearly proved disastrous against Scotland and did have a game-changing effect when repeated against the Welsh.
There are only three reasons to substitute your out-half -- if he is patently out of sorts, if the win is already secured beyond doubt or if your team is chasing the game and a change of emphasis is required.
Rotating your No 10s in a bid to keep your options open with one eye on the World Cup is self-defeating in a situation when victory is the primary requirement to instil self-belief heading for New Zealand.
The same individual who observed that perception is strong and sight weak also noted that it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things
All available evidence points to O'Gara as being the man to oversee both Ireland's bid to end a disappointing Six Nations on a high note and then to engineer a first World Cup semi-final appearance.
That may be hard on Sexton who believed he had nailed down the role, but needs must and (it deserves to be stated again) picking O'Gara does not mean abandoning expansive rugby, the statistics kick that particular chestnut firmly into touch.