Friday 23 March 2018

O'Gara's burning desire shows no sign of dying out

Ronan O'Gara in conversation with Declan Kidney during the squad Captain's Run yesterday. Photo: PAT MURPHY / SPORTSFILE
Ronan O'Gara in conversation with Declan Kidney during the squad Captain's Run yesterday. Photo: PAT MURPHY / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There are certain matches when little motivation is necessary. Today at the Aviva is one such occasion. Throw in the spicy detail of two teams grappling for form in the dress rehearsal for the World Cup take-off, and you get the drift. Winning this afternoon matters.

A fourth defeat in this August's warm-up series would hugely damage collective morale and confidence, with the real thing now no more than a fortnight away. So let us call a spade a spade... this is a must-win game for Declan Kidney's side.

The groundwork has been laid, the game-time sought now in the tank for all bar David Wallace, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris. It is the time, as Willie Duggan used so often say before big matches, to s**t or get off the pot.

With seven wins in the last eight meetings between the sides, allied to home advantage, the odds are stacked firmly in Ireland's favour. For Kidney and Martin Johnson, this match marks the start to New Zealand 2011 in earnest.

Yes, this is a warm-up game, but try telling that to those at the heart of the action or the capacity crowd set to attend. It will, as ever, be a pressure-cooker atmosphere, but, for the players -- with all seats on the plane to New Zealand now allocated -- the shackles are off. It is now about getting the unit right.


On the plus side, the set-piece has functioned adequately, apart from the odd glitch. Against that, and perhaps most disappointingly, much like England, we have failed to translate possession and territory into points or into line breaks of substance.

We have lacked the cutting edge that Bowe can now bring, but, more worrying than that has been the lack of creativity in midfield and the ease with which opposition defences -- specifically the French last week -- can shepherd us across field using the touchline as a one-out guard.

For Gordon D'Arcy and Keith Earls there is an opportunity to make a statement as an attacking combination. Alongside, in the No 10 shirt, will be a certain Munsterman, with fire burning within, bidding to force Kidney's hand as to who runs the show in the key World Cup matches.

If anyone doubts Ronan O'Gara's competitive edge, look no further than his late introduction last week. Despite Jonny Sexton continuing alongside (at centre), it was O'Gara taking the late goal-kicks. This is a man on a mission to make the out-half position his own, despite what many would have you believe.

Both out-halves have equally strong cases, but Sexton is probably marginally favoured by Kidney. It is also a big opportunity for Jerry Flannery. Hooker is where we have strength in depth, but Flannery is still the top man, not least in terms of line-out throwing.

Both Ferris and the returning Wallace are clearly short on game-time in an area where, despite the absence of skipper Lewis Moody, England are top heavy with alternatives and ball-carrying back-rowers in Tom Croft, James Haskell and Nick Easter. Offer the same freedom today as was given to Louis Picamoles and we are back in serious merde at the breakdown for the second week running. Picamoles did untold damage and laid the match-winning foundation in an area where we pride ourselves with our defence.

Of the rest, Donncha O'Callaghan needs a big one and Rob Kearney an assertive one. Of the replacements Tom Court, Donnacha Ryan, Fergus McFadden, and Conor Murray will be itching for whatever game-time is going. Before that Eoin Reddan, now in pole position, has the opportunity to make the scrum-half position for New Zealand his own.

Johnson's main concern will be with midfield and, specifically, the permutations at out-half and centre. Scrum-half, too, will come under intense scrutiny, but would he want it any other way? The England head coach will cite (for public consumption) performance as the main aim, but behind closed doors what happened last March will be central to the build-up. That day, the Chariot was derailed and, despite getting the better off the Welsh at Twickenham, it hasn't got back there since.

The prize today is a positive springboard for New Zealand. It is one that ought not be lightly dismissed. It is, for many reasons, a difficult one to call, but, on the basis that four straight defeats doesn't bear thinking about, we take Ireland to scrape a high-octane affair. Whatever it may lack in quality, it sure won't come up short on endeavour. Ireland by a kick.

dynamic hagan just what ireland need

Watching the Leinster shadow squad overcome the Melbourne Rebels at Donnybrook last week, one couldn't but be struck by the performance of the three newcomers: prop Jamie Hagan, wing Fionn Carr and out-half Matt Berquist. Depending on how the next few months go, Hagan must be on the verge of a call-up to the Ireland set-up, while Carr should already be there.

The former Newbridge College and Connacht utility back is the most dynamic runner in Irish rugby. His style might be beyond any coaching manual, and perhaps therein lies the most obvious clue to his ongoing exclusion.

A more compact version of Simon Geoghegan but with equal gas to burn. Like Hagan, expect the call to come in the immediate aftermath of this World Cup, which, of course, begs the most obvious question: why not now?

As for former Crusader Berquist, here is coolness personified, an out-half unruffled by anything around him and the epitome of calmness under pressure as the Leinster squad grows in depth and quality by the season.

•Proceeds from the sale of today's match programme with England will go to Third World charity GOAL to help fund its various humanitarian projects.

Irish Independent

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