Calling the shots
Declan Kidney’s team selection for Scotland, especially the return of Ronan O’Gara at out-half, has raised critical issues regarding Ireland’s progress towards the World Cup
HE'S back in the saddle. After expressing their desire to improve communication and confidence levels in the squad, Ireland have turned, once again, to Ronan O'Gara as solution provider.
With 105 caps, 987 international points (fifth in the all-time list) and a career decorated with match-winning performances for province and country, the Munster man could be the missing ingredient Ireland coach Declan Kidney is seeking.
It is a remarkable and deserved comeback for the man who turns 34 next month. O'Gara had, in many quarters, been too readily consigned to the role of useful understudy since Jonathan Sexton came on the international scene with such confidence in the wins over Fiji and South Africa in November 2009.
Sexton's progression with Leinster and Ireland has been a good news story for Irish rugby and he has taken to the international stage with considerable aplomb. However, those who viewed his elevation to the starting out-half role as a natural evolutionary process, which would see O'Gara gradually winding down his Ireland career, did not factor in the Corkman's pride and determination.
Kidney has constantly spoken of how fortunate he is to have access to two quality out-halves and repeated that assertion yesterday, but Sexton has indisputably been his first choice since making his breakthrough. In many respects, Sexton played well against Italy and France, but, as was argued here after the France defeat, O'Gara is simply playing too well to leave out.
"If you want to keep guys ticking along, it's only right that you (reward form)," said Kidney yesterday. "Ronan has been playing very well and deserves a game."
As well as form, O'Gara brings leadership and control in a pivotal position. He will bark and harry and provide direction which could be the vital spark for a side that is on the verge of finding its feet and producing something special after an uncertain 11 months.
Does this selection mean Ireland will revert to a more conservative game plan and abandon the running game?
Absolutely not. Ireland are set firmly on an expansive path in keeping with the changes in interpretations favouring an attacking game. The easy assumption is that O'Gara is the conservative, kicking choice when, in fact, he has the passing game, superior to Sexton's, to bring the best out of the players around him.
What he does not have is Sexton's ability on the run, extremely effective when he loops around his centres. Nor is O'Gara as physical in the tackle, although his defence is not the issue it was once portrayed to be. This is an issue of control and having the experience to play what is in front of you.
That means when the territory game is the best option, O'Gara will kick for position, when it is time to run, he will move it. It is safe to expect more kicking out of hand than we saw against France, but there will be plenty of running to go with it.
Is this a one-off selection for a must-win game?
No. O'Gara is the man in possession and now Sexton needs to replicate his rival's attitude and performances to the point where Kidney has to pick him again. Although consistency of selection in such a crucial position is always the preferred scenario, this individual battle adds to the collective cause. Sexton will be motivated to be as effective off the bench as O'Gara has been and has equally potent game-changing qualities. Having two operators of this ability scrapping it out makes Ireland the envy of many other nations, not least Scotland.
"I thought Jonathan had a very good game the last day," said Kidney. "Jonathan has come on, he was a very good player before we met him and I think he's improved no end, but this was a game I just wanted to give to Ronan."
Just as Sexton's occupation of the No 10 jersey was never set in stone -- despite many conclusions to the contrary -- nor is O'Gara's. It is up to Sexton to win the jersey back now and if he is playing well enough, Kidney has shown that he will recognise that fact. Which is just as it should be.
Is Gordon D'Arcy fortunate to hold onto the No 12 jersey?
No. D'Arcy is the best option available to Ireland in this position, but he does need a big game on Sunday, free of any high-profile errors. Against Italy, his handling let him down, while his defence was excellent; against France, his missed tackle on Aurelien Rougerie was calamitous, but he played well otherwise.
"He missed one (tackle) and probably didn't get the credit for the 20 that he made," said Kidney. "So, that's my job as a coach, to see what a guy is doing."
D'Arcy is the preferred choice as partner to Brian O'Driscoll now and at the World Cup.
There is no doubting his skill levels or defensive excellence and Sunday is the perfect occasion to demonstrate exactly that.
Is Fergus McFadden unfortunate to miss out on the 22?
Yes, in terms of deserving a place on the bench. McFadden has performed well over the two games and would have made even more of an impression if passes had gone to hand.
However, Tommy Bowe was always going to return to the right wing when fit and his experience and big-game mentality was a deciding factor in light of the confidence and communication issues.
"That (experience) is the big thing, really," said Kidney. "I wouldn't be faulting Fergus in anything he did. For someone to come in and go that well at wing, when his first-choice position would be centre, I thought he did a great job for us. It's handy to be able to increase the options in the back three."
That final point is the one which makes McFadden unlucky not to earn a place on the bench. Paddy Wallace, the designated No 3 out-half, is covering the outside backs, but having McFadden along with Sexton on the bench would have provided greater attacking variety.
Is this a team that can beat Scotland and kick on with confidence?
Indisputably. By the third game, things should start coming together, and it is logical to expect a vast improvement in terms of error-count and soft penalties.
Scotland can never be discounted, as last season proved, but Ireland's players have shown themselves too consistently superior at club level and can be equally emphatic on Sunday.
The back-row played extremely well against France, the scrum is finding its feet and second-row Paul O'Connell is improving with each outing alongside the in-form Donncha O'Callaghan. Eoin Reddan coming in for the injured Tomas O'Leary lessens the physical element around the fringes, but adds to the attacking potency.
Then there is O'Gara to call the shots with Sexton to provide variety off the bench and a backline that showed against France how threatening it can be.
Put it all together and Ireland can produce their most effective display since the win over Wales last March and get the win that they crave -- not least because this group knows the grim consequences of another defeat.