O'Gara's decision-making can cut through the fog
Published 26/02/2011 | 05:00
He had been the youngest man ever capped by his country in his sport. Now, recalled in his declining years to face the world champions, he walked to the wicket to face the fastest bowlers on the planet armed with leg pads, a pair of gloves, a bat and a piece of pink sticking-plaster on his elbow. Brian Close was 45 years old.
Ronan O'Gara might smile wryly at being compared to an English cricketer, but he knows that ageism is rife in sport. Coaches, like ageing Lotharios in search of a new girlfriend, often promote emerging young talent at the expense of older performers with the priceless gift of experience.
The Munster fly-half is back after twice saving his country's bacon in this year's Six Nations Championship. Yet the hero of 2011 spent a difficult summer 2010 wondering if his contract would be renewed.
At some point a 'retirement package' with a French club must have crossed his mind.
Happily in all quarters, common sense has prevailed, and the pre-eminent fly-half in Irish rugby is back in his rightful position.
Meanwhile, the signals from within the Irish camp have been mixed. "We've got a lot of good guys playing for us but some of them are a little bit quiet in themselves," said head coach Declan Kidney.
"We've got to communicate a lot better than we're doing at the present time. It's an Irish thing, that we don't talk much," said Alan Gaffney, the backs coach.
"Not so, for me it has been as vocal as it has been," said skipper Brian O'Driscoll. "The thing is that you have to be careful and not have too many talkers."
So which is it -- too much or too little talk?
Ireland have been in trouble because the strategic objectives set by the coaches have been at odds with the tactical appreciation of the players.
Before the French game Gaffney avowed, "we will attack them, it's the only way to play a French side." Little wonder then that Ireland and Jonny Sexton played as they did. After the game, Gaffney again: "As much as we want to play that running game, we have to play a smart game and if you only play one type of game it's easy for opposition to put a stop to that."
Confused? I am, and perhaps so were the players.
Tomorrow will be an interesting challenge. Both teams dropped their fly-halves; the Irish because they could not kick, the Scots because they kicked too much. Like Baby Bear's porridge for Little Red Riding Hood, O'Gara's mixture will be just right and therein lies the best prospect of an Irish victory in Murrayfield. It is not about the amount of talk; it is about the quality of the decisions.
Happily, the fly-half's weaknesses may be useful on this occasion. His inferior acceleration will put the over-used loop move to bed, and his supposed fragility in defence will improve the quality of the backline organisation in that area.
At Ulster and Ireland, David Humphreys relied on the cover tackling of Andy Ward. Similarly O'Gara, unlike Sexton against France, will leave the inside channel to the back-row and stand opposite the Scottish No 10.
As always in rugby, the battle will be won up front. For the first time in over 100 tests the Irish scrum will not be a subject for discussion.
Its brother set-piece, the line-out, may be a problem. Every team bar Wales in this competition has a better line-out than Ireland and to win we need at least parity in that area. From here the extra room afforded the backs will be crucial, although whether this team can actually attack from deep is moot. The much-vaunted three tries against France were scored from a cumulative distance of six yards.
A steady scrum could see meaningful attack by the back-row for the first time in living memory. Jamie Heaslip may not like it but Sean O'Brien in the No 8 position on the Irish put-in could give the most dynamic runner in Europe a chance to show whether he can attack defenders at international level as he does in the club game.
Irish ball-carriers do not break the gain line. Once more Gaffney provides a clue: "There's a perception that we ran everything but Jonny (Sexton) only passed the ball 10 times in the entire game; that doesn't give you the idea that we're running everything," he said. If the coach is correct, then his No 10 only received the ball 11 times, because he kicked but once.
The statistics are probably true: Ireland persisted in passing to a forward who made no yardage but simply ran at a defender and went to ground, in contrast to almost every other major team in the world, which have all attempted to perfect the offload in the tackle.
Ireland's offloads are invariably dropped or miss the intended target. Sad to say, but international coaches in Ireland may have to spend increased time at passing and kicking practice than the more esoteric talents of high-speed attack patterns.
The Scots represent the defining challenge for the Irish season. A loss will consign the men in green to a struggle for respectability, whereas a win will offer the possibility of a Triple Crown consolation prize.
I worry less about the prize; my concern is the serious lack of confidence in this team. I am heartened that a rugby player with the same innate characteristics of my cricketing hero is in the pivotal role.