Saturday 16 December 2017

Replacing O'Gara was a baffling decision

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's bad enough losing to Wales in as muddled an Irish performance as we have witnessed for some time but, just for a moment, pity the players as they return to base with Grand Slam-chasing England next up in four days.

Time, or lack of it, is in this case a blessing in disguise: little space to dwell on what might have been had the match officials done their job, had Paddy Wallace chosen the straightforward route rather than the one he did or had Declan Kidney not made the out-half substitution when he did -- for reasons best known to himself.

On all three counts, the central figures got the critical calls wrong. I'm slow to criticise referees for the simple reason that the game has become a maze of complexity. Where I have long had issue is with touch-judging and the generally ineffective part that refereeing assistants play.

Saturday's howler by Peter Allan took it to another level and, here, I have sympathy for Kidney and Brian O'Driscoll in posing the question as to whether it is too much to expect officials to get the most fundamental rulings right.


All players ask is fairness and consistency. Ireland were denied that and, as much as I understand the case for extending the brief of the Television Match Official (TMO), I worry greatly as to where this might lead.

Just where do you draw the line? How far back do you go? It would be opening a king-size can of worms and all the time diminishing the judgment of the referee. Of course we accept it would have solved Saturday's problem, but at what price, in the long-term?

To err is human and, in Cardiff, the match officials got it wrong. But it wasn't the reason we lost. Circle the wagons now and we are heading for a bigger fall at the Aviva on Saturday. Accept the error and move on.

As to where we go from here, well the heat is on Kidney more than ever. Our most successful coach hasn't become a bad one on the back of a series of indifferent performances but, he is in danger of losing the reins if he doesn't return to that trademark conviction of old.

I can identify with the vast majority of decisions he makes but Saturday's replacement of Ronan O'Gara baffled me -- and I'm not being wise in hindsight.

O'Gara was the right man in an environment made for his experience and skill set. From the outside, it appeared as if the decision to replace O'Gara with Jonny Sexton for the last half hour was preordained.

If that was the case, then there is cause for concern. Kidney has long been his own man -- he must not concede to outside influences now.

Saturday's match-changing substitution -- and indeed his uncharacteristic anger clearly evident in the post-match interview -- signalled a man under pressure. To that end, this is the week in which he must reassert his authority.

Kidney is not Marc Lievremont (thankfully) and does not have anything close to the French tinkerman's resources. There is a case for change -- but with minimal time or room for manoeuvre.

The full-back void -- in the absence of Geordan Murphy and Rob Kearney -- has come back to haunt him. Luke Fitzgerald has not capitalised on the opportunity.

He has been unsure under the high ball and hesitant in attack, which is his greatest strength.

The loss of Kearney and Murphy has been greatly felt throughout this campaign. Despite suggestions to the contrary, Kearney is, like Murphy, a full-back whose primary instinct is to run.

Were the call mine I would go for a simple positional switch between Keith Earls and Fitzgerald for Saturday. The alternative -- and it is an option -- is to bring in Gavin Duffy as a stop-gap replacement.

At half-back, I would leave Peter Stringer in situ alongside O'Gara to start (tough on Eoin Reddan, I know, although concussion may rule the Leinster man out anyway) but, with Tomas O'Leary likely to be available, Kidney may reassert his authority here.

I felt so sorry for Sexton in Cardiff given the circumstances and timing of his call. I suspect that out-half, like full-back, is beginning to wreck the coach's head.

Beyond that -- and despite growing calls for Leo Cullen and Sean Cronin to start -- I would leave well enough alone. Donncha O'Callaghan's contribution at the break-down has been good throughout this championship. He was central in setting up a number of turnovers.

Rory Best, too, had his most effective run of the championship and should restart at hooker. There wasn't an awful lot wrong from one to eight against the Welsh -- although Jamie Heaslip was largely anonymous.

I appreciate the call for change and, were there a fortnight between games, the scope would be there to make switches. Moving Sean O'Brien to No 8 with Kevin McLaughlin as an extra line-out jumper would be one such option, but it would be a high-risk strategy.


The romantic in me would like to see change but sometimes necessity dictates the terms. England can be rattled, as the Scots showed, through aggressive defending without the ball and hard running with it.

It is a simple but obvious formula. We have the personnel, we have the atmosphere and this group of players, edging ever closer to the last chance saloon, have the incentive.

Change for the sake of change is never a clever course of action. For all that was wrong with the decision making -- on and off the field -- in Cardiff, it is difficult to come up with ready-made guaranteed solutions.

A case could be made for the in-form Fergus McFadden at centre alongside O'Driscoll, or on the wing. A case could also be made for Andrew Trimble coming back in on the left wing, with Fitzgerald losing out altogether.

If McFadden fails to make the starting cut, then logic surely dictates, with Sexton covering out-half, that McFadden be picked as utility outside back in the match-day 22.

All told, it would make for a starting line up to face the unbeaten English along the following lines:

Tony Ward's XV V England

15 K Earls (Munster); 14 T Bowe (Ospreys), 13 B O'Driscoll (capt, Leinster), 12 G D'Arcy (Leinster), 11 L Fitzgerald (Leinster); 10 R O'Gara (Munster), 9 P Stringer (Munster); 1 C Healy (Leinster), 2 R Best (Ulster), 3 M Ross (Leinster); 4 D O'Callaghan (Munster), 5 P O'Connell (Munster); 6 S O'Brien (Leinster), 7 D Wallace (Munster), 8 J Heaslip (Leinster). Reps: 16 S Cronin (Connacht), 17 T Court (Ulster), 18 L Cullen (Leinster), 19 D Leamy (Munster), 20 T O'Leary (Munster), 21 J Sexton (Leinster), 22 F McFadden (Leinster).

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