Tony Ward: Stick with O'Gara
Published 09/02/2010 | 05:00
We've been down this road before. Opening game against the Italians, indifferent win, panic attack, the end is nigh. Panic everywhere, that is except where it matters most and Declan Kidney knows the score better than any.
He and his players know they didn't come remotely close to where they would have wanted to be post-match on Saturday. Equally they are around long enough to know that you must be at your best for Test rugby, most particularly in this tournament.
Saturday's fare was dire but there were positives on display and looking forward to the season's first objective of taking on the French in Paris this weekend, it was an opening performance that was pretty much on track, bearing in mind the opposition.
Look, it's so easy to be negative in these claustrophobic rugby times. Slow down the ball, close out the opposition and prevent constructive rugby is the simplest plan in the book.
It may not always be achieved but in terms of a realistic objective for most teams at this level, it's well within their powers.
If the Italians can operate pretty efficiently in suffocating the All Blacks in the autumn, then Ireland in the spring -- Grand Slam champions and all -- is a relative breeze.
I remember back in my schoolboy soccer days when playing for Rangers Boys (Terenure) against St Kevin's Boys (Whitehall). We were top dogs on the south side and St Kevin's, with Liam Brady the star, were top guns north of the river. We met in many under-age finals and contested most league titles up through the ranks.
But whenever we came head-to-head, the first principle was to snuff out the developing genius in the black and orange No 10 shirt. To that end, one of our talented midfielders with a great big engine (well, inside right as it was more accurately termed back then), Tommy Kenny, was designated to track Brady from box to box, never letting him out of his sight. Generally he succeeded and whatever about the principle, it was a very early lesson for this long-over-the-top observer as to how much easier and more effective it is to negate than create.
On Saturday in Croke Park, 'Tommo' was in blue and 'Chippy' in green as the Azzurri blanket succeeded in snuffing almost every green spark. In times past we have managed the occasional intercept try to break Italian resolve but on this first-up run, we were both slow out of the blocks (despite the 15-point half-time lead) and limp in desire and wherewithal to put them away after the break.
With France producing a much more impressive winning performance in Murrayfield 24 hours later, it's pretty clear already where most sensible money will now be headed this coming weekend. On this opening-round evidence, allied to our horrendous record in the French capital, it will be Les Bleus who are the clear favourites going into Saturday's must-win game.
The key ingredient for France in Edinburgh was control; the ability to dictate tempo at critical times in the Murrayfield contest.
They were ultra physical at the breakdown and capitalised on the Scottish front-row problems to the full. Nothing we didn't expect them to be and yet again they rubbished the constantly rehashed myth about being weak on the road. What team anywhere in any code is not more comfortable at home than away? And just for the record, we've won once in Paris in the last 18 attempts. France have won in Dublin 11 times and lost just five in the same period -- bad travellers I ask you!
I worry about the look of this French side. There appears a delicate blend of finesse and crude physicality. In Francois Trinh-Duc they at last have a genuine playmaker at out-half. He is a game-controlling No 10, one with a very real presence in the prime match- managing position. In Imanol Harinordoquy they also have a dynamic and tactically astute No 8, while the ferocity from one to five needs little elaboration.
Aerial ping-pong has become part and parcel of the modern game. Whenever we travelled to Paris the first rule of engagement was 'you made them work for everything they got'. Chiefly you kicked away possession at your peril. Cheap ball to French backs on the counter was an absolute no-no. Changed times, different tactical demands but still be warned: loose kicking to Clement Poitrenaud and, based on Sunday's Edinburgh evidence, we could be chasing shadows in Paris.
Tommy Bowe may have been starved in attacking terms, but his ability to compete for wayward kicks (to which he had no real right) made light of potentially damaging situations on various occasions. Specifically with Tomas O'Leary there is still that scrum- half tendency to overcook the box kick. Higher, shorter and closer to the five-metre tram line is the essential need for Saturday. And for Rob Kearney too, a big improvement in kick execution is required.
For the second season running, this game will be crucial to how the championship pans out. And just as with the 'Enfield Accord' -- whereby hitting the ground running against France at Croke Park was the fundamental objective discussed -- this will also be the case this year. However, behind closed doors the Ireland management won't be too concerned by the fact that Ireland are not hitting top gear going into this showdown in Paris.
Think about it. Would the canny Kidney want it any other way? Defending Grand Slam champions, yet now we are travelling to play France as underdogs. He knows they are capable of so much more. Which would we prefer? A repeat of the Springbok performance against the Italians in Croke Park last Saturday or to wait and hit fifth gear against the French this weekend?
I accept form cannot be turned on and off at the flick of a switch, but equally sides cannot peak at every time of asking either. However, a win of any hue in Paris and you can take it as read that whatever ineptitude shown against the Italians will be soon forgotten. If we are only as good as our last game then Kidney, Brian O'Driscoll and the rest have a lot to make up on Saturday.
The big question for Kidney over the past 48 hours is, fitness allowing, how can I improve the side? Those out of the loop for medical reasons last week included Donncha O'Callaghan, Stephen Ferris and Jonathan Sexton. If all are fit and raring to go and were the call mine, it would be Leo Cullen retained alongside Paul O'Connell in the second-row. Ronan O'Gara likewise, with O'Leary at half- back, leaving Ferris (if fit) for Kevin McLaughlin the only change to the starting team from last week.
If Andrew Trimble's hamstring is deemed okay, then I would start with the Ulsterman again on the left, springing Keith Earls when the appropriate time arrives. Gordon D'Arcy would continue at inside centre leaving Kidney to decide on whether O'Gara or Sexton will run the show.
On this, the decision guaranteed to garner most media attention, I trust implicitly in Kidney's call. All told, it would make for a line-up to hit the Stade de France along the following lines: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster), Andrew Trimble (Ulster); Ronan O'Gara (Munster), Tomas O'Leary (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Jerry Flannery (Munster), John Hayes (Munster); Leo Cullen (Leinster), Paul O'Connell (Munster); Stephen Ferris (Ulster), David Wallace (Munster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).