Saturday 16 November 2019

O'Gara snub an unnecessary risk for Ireland boss

Conor George

DECLAN KIDNEY is about to take the biggest gamble of his coaching career. It's a gamble he doesn't need to take and is one he shouldn't take.

Ronan O'Gara will be the ultimate professional on Sunday. He will take his place on the bench, he will study the game with the deep devotion of a JRR Tolkien fan devouring a newly discovered tome depicting life in Middle Earth.

And when called on he will be at his proficient best. O'Gara's demeanour, attitude, pedigree and attitude are not in question.

Neither is his ability to perform under pressure. O'Gara's career is punctuated with stirring deeds and extraordinary achievements. Time and again he has shown himself the ultimate professional, ice-cold in the most exacting of situations.

Paddy Jackson is undoubtedly a talent with potential. He is so highly regarded in Ulster that they didn't stand in Ian Humphreys' way when he decided to leave the club and join London Irish.

Humphreys realised last season that Ulster planned to invest their future in Jackson and saw no reason to remain on at the province, despite his older brother David's presence as chief executive of the club.

But Jackson is unproven at the highest level. And in his only true game of "pressure rugby" in last season's Heineken Cup final he was found wanting when Leinster ruthlessly exposed his inexperience and callow temperament.

Now he will be thrown into the centre of a hugely competitive Six Nations tie for a first major test at international level. And in the cauldron that will be Murrayfield, against a Scottish team resurgent in spirit after their sparkling win over Italy, he will inevitably be subject to the most exacting of examinations.

Ronan O'Gara thrives on pressure. You cannot expect to earn 127 international caps, score 1,083 points in a green shirt, win four Triple Crowns, a Grand Slam, two Heineken Cups and be the undisputed most valuable player over 15 years of European club competition and not be a player of immense ability and iron will.

Surely the demands of Sunday's match meant O'Gara should have been handed the No 10 shirt given his pedigree and vast experience.

He would cope with the atmosphere and the sense of occasion, issues that will place an added strain on the inexperienced Jackson. It surely would have served the situation more effectively to have started with O'Gara and to introduce Jackson later, if the trend of the game was favourable.

Kidney, of course, has his reasons for choosing Jackson over O'Gara, which will be explained at today's team announcements. He will, presumably, point to the Munster man's uncharacteristically below-par performance against Llanelli at the weekend.

But what about O'Gara's performances against Saracens in the Heineken Cup in December when he was at his majestic best? And if there is one player in Irish rugby history who has consistently performed when his back has been to the wall it's O'Gara.

There was the occasion when he went public with some trenchant comments about the relative standing of the Premiership.

His viewpoint provoked a mini-storm of protest from England but he then turned the argument round by piloting Munster to victory over then defending European champions Leicester Tigers.

His career is littered with his exploits and when he does finally hang up his sweat-stained shirt he will leave an indelible mark on the landscape of this nation's rugby history.

It is an astonishing gamble by Kidney. And one that is wholly unnecessary. There are more reasons not to pick Jackson than O'Gara.

Who, for example, is going to kick from the tee? Those duties are carried out by Ruan Pienaar, a South African, in Ulster. Indeed, Jackson barely put boot to ball for Ulster in their win over Zebre on Friday night. Pienaar kicked from the tee and also kicked for position more often than not.

Kicking coaches like to talk about 'processes' and 'routines' when it comes to kickers but there is no substitute for kicking in a match situation when need is at its greatest and pressure at its zenith, something O'Gara has coped with throughout his long career.

It would be unwise to regard this as the end of O'Gara's glittering career. The man has shown his liking for competition over the years and his feisty personality has occasionally drawn him into hot water.

He will be on the bench as back-up to Jackson in Murrayfield and you can be sure he will be itching for a piece of the action. With concerns over the time needed for Jonathan Sexton's return to fitness, Ireland will happily rejoice in the availability of their experienced out-half for the remainder of the Six Nations season.

It is a truism in sport ... class is permanent.

Irish Independent

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