Tuesday 12 November 2019

So, just who is Ireland's first choice No 10?

Hugh Farrelly

Starter for 10 ... who is Ireland's first-choice now?

It was a pertinent question going into the showdown with England and remains so after Ireland's tumultuous, Grand Slam-denying victory, which incorporated a Man-of-the-Match performance from Jonathan Sexton, and expert game management from Ronan O'Gara to quell any faint notions of an English revival.

Declan Kidney has repeatedly referred to being "blessed" to have two top-quality No 10s, and never was that point better illustrated than at a rocking Lansdowne Road on Saturday evening. Sexton's stellar showing does not change the fact that his selection ahead of O'Gara was an act of faith by Kidney, given that the Leinster man seemed shaky against Scotland and, especially, Wales; his Munster rival was very much 'in the zone' all championship.

However, that faith was repaid handsomely. All the confidence was back and it flowed through Sexton as he set about tormenting the English, with his tapped penalties typifying the 'go-for-it' attitude that permeated the team and their playmaker-in-chief.

After missing a gimme in the Millennium Stadium last weekend, Sexton's place-kicking was also restored to its customary efficiency, the out-half marking his first successful effort with a fist clench full of intent and going on to kick five from six.

Irish rugby needed Sexton to rediscover his mojo and, with the World Cup in mind, it was heartening to see him do so on the big occasion against highly rated opponents. Then, when Sexton exited to a standing ovation with 12 minutes to go, O'Gara came and did his usual.

England, re-energised by their own use of the bench, were striving desperately to force their way back into the contest and, even at 24-8, a converted score from the visitors would have led to a more nervous endgame than Irish efforts deserved.

O'Gara slammed the door shut. Shortly after arriving, the 34-year-old fielded a Jonny Wilkinson kick on the run just inside the Irish half took the ball and, spotting space in the right-hand corner, expertly spun the ball off his right boot behind replacement David Strettle and into touch.

As his grateful forwards jogged past on their way to the line-out, O'Gara gave them a wink and a smile and you knew then there no possibility of an Irish implosion. But this was not merely a shut-out exercise, O'Gara pinned England back in their own '22,' but once the Irish made camp, he led the hunt for the killer try that was only narrowly denied.

The Corkman's blood was up and his little tete-a-tete with Chris Ashton reinforced the point and fired up the crowd even further.

A good day, then, for the Irish out-halves, in stark contrast to the England duo of Toby Flood and Wilkinson, who went into the match heralded as the perfect 10 combination, but were unable to impose themselves.

However, when it is all pared down, we are still left with the original question -- who is Ireland's first-choice pivot heading to the World Cup?

After five games, the answer for the Ireland management would appear to be Sexton, on the basis that the practice of starting the Leinsterman with the Munsterman in reserve has been more successful. This is hard on O'Gara, who has had an excellent tournament (as proven by his presence on the list nominees for player of the championship), but Saturday's triumph is bound to set the template for the battles to come.

The best news for Kidney is that, based on this showing, whoever is handed the jersey this autumn, No 10 is a position of considerable strength.

Irish Independent

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