Saturday 20 January 2018

Duel for the crown

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

As on half of the last great number 10 battle, Tony Ward gives his unique insight into the O'Gara and Sexton rivalry

Confront Ronan O'Gara or Jonathan Sexton about the other and each player will make all the right soundings. You know the lines: "Yeah, we're great rivals but the best of buddies"; "We help each other all the time"; "The competition's great, it brings out the best in both of us."

Trust me, it doesn't work like that and even less so now than ever. First up, selection is the be all and end all to any professional rugby player's existence. If it's not, then he shouldn't be involved in the professional game.

In a purely rugby context, I wished so many times that a certain Seamus Oliver Campbell hadn't existed. Was I happier when the green No 10 shirt was my sole preserve? You betcha! It may be great for the coach but not, I can assure you, for the players centrally involved. Rest assured too that in the coming weeks, as the out-half hype gathers momentum, both worthy candidates for the playmaking role will say all the right things, chiefly about each other.

It's the nature of the gig. Someone asked me recently if I was one of the replacements for the 1982 and '85 Triple Crown wins. My answer quite honestly was, thankfully, no. And I meant it. There is nothing worse than being a substitute. My preferred option was always being out of the frame entirely rather than being outside the starting XV. And just for the record, I did sub as often as I played.

When you sat in the stand -- no benches in our day -- there was a role to be played. Cheering at the appropriate time when things went the team's -- and more specifically your positional rival's -- way, was the only way to go. As an honest broker for the substitutes' club (aka Impostors United) we hated it. I doubt it has changed that much since. In fact, I would suggest that one-on-one rivalries are much more intense now than ever.

Certainly watching the discomfort of Mick O'Driscoll and Alan Quinlan in the immediate aftermath of Cardiff's Grand Slam success back in March and the personal disappointment of not being in the starting XV was acute. Their feeling of disconnect is one with which I can so easily identify with.

Much has been made in the media with regard to the O'Gara/Sexton relationship -- or more specifically the lack of it. Quite honestly, I don't know how either genuinely feels about the other but bosom buddies they are clearly not.

One regret, of many, I have about my own playing career was not being remotely ruthless enough in separating Campbell the person from Campbell the rival. It was, of course, a different era but as well as I prepared for our every personal joust -- be it at club, provincial or final trial -- all the hard-edged mental rehearsal and pre-match psychological planning went out the window when Ollie greeted you in his warm inimitable 'Mr Naturally Nice Guy' way.


Time and again I managed to avoid us meeting prior to kick-off. Eye-to-eye contact was a definite no-no. It was all part of the grand mental plan and then, just on kick-off, I would foolishly look up only to catch the good-luck wave and accompanying thumbs-up signal from the opposite end of the field. That was it. Knocked-out before the contest had begun. I was psychologically wiped, mentally drained. All the previous week's pent-up anger and pseudo hatred in the build-up destroyed in a single gesture... not worth a tuppeny curse when it mattered and I really needed it.

There were also the Quinn twins. Well, they weren't really twins -- just brothers -- but Micky and Charlie, whether for Lansdowne or Leinster, loved to get inside a player's head (mine particularly) whenever that big-match opportunity arose.

It was a different era, I guess. A time too when No 10s were thick on the ground. Far from the much-hyped Campbell-Ward rivalry and apart from the aforementioned Quinns, there were out-halves of substance in all four provinces.

There was Adrian Goodrich and Mike Gibson up north, Barry McGann and a young up-and-coming, but immensely talented whippersnapper, called Moss Finn down south. There was Ciaran Smyth and Conor Sparks in Connacht as well as Darragh Coakley and the emerging Paul Dean in the metropolis, plus the versatile Hugh Condon driving the Irish Exiles at Sunbury.

Added together it made for a fairly competitive out-half mix despite any misconceptions since. The Australian tour in 1979 brought it all to a head and I guess there was no going back after that. Campbell versus Ward became the big issue of the time -- and way beyond the realms of mere rugby. Neither of us courted it. We both hated it.

I guess we had a rivalry which was, from an Irish perspective, made in heaven when, from a personal point of view, it was one manufactured in hell.

Now, of course, it's a different age and different game entirely. The human element is still there but the professional edge demands just that; an edge equally tough inside and out. It's fair to say that one out-half has dominated the opening decade of the new Millennium, culminating in 2009 and the greatest year in Irish rugby history. O'Gara has been the main man and has served Munster and Ireland incredibly well.

Aside from David Humphreys, whose rivalry for the playmaking role was relevant in the early years, O'Gara has ruled the position virtually unopposed. It speaks volumes for the Cork man's consistency and incredibly high-standard of play, but equally reflects poorly on the so-called conveyor belt of out-halves feeding into the system.

We all have our theories as to why this has been the case. Certainly the changing emphasis on flexible 'first receiver' as distinct from specialist out-half and the shared responsibility that entails hasn't helped. I see it first hand at schoolboy level. Too few No 10s are encouraged to take charge and instead a wall of players freely interchangeable with the first receiver are now in place of where the out-half once stood.

Rightly or wrongly, one of the golden rules of rugby was that nobody loitered between the halves. To some it might seem a small and relatively insignificant shift but the ramifications are huge. I still want my out-half to be the main man because with the acceptance of responsibility comes conviction and courage -- particularly in times of crisis. Both O'Gara and Sexton are made of the right stuff.

After a particularly barren spell there are encouraging signs of a few more out-half kids on the block. Certainly in Ulster there is a real battle royal looming between the incumbent Ian Humphreys (27) and possible heir apparent Niall O'Connor (22) to David Humphreys' throne.

Full credit to Tony McGahan in Munster for making optimum use of two gifted footballing No 10s when shifting Paul Warwick to full-back. I've never spoken to Warwick about it but I'm sure if ever an international call-up was regretted, it was his with the Wallaby Sevens before coming to Ireland.

For the record, myself and Campbell did line out together for Ireland -- I think five times in all -- once in Australia in '79 against Sydney with Ollie at full-back; against Romania in 1980 with myself at out-half and Campbell in the centre; and then three times in the Five Nations Championship of 1981 against Wales, England and Scotland. The fall guy who was forced to make way was one Paul McNaughton, current manager and wise old owl to the Irish team.

And out west former Belvedere schoolboy Ian Keatley (22) is learning his trade. He is already a key cog and vital points scorer in the Connacht machine but the jury remains out still beyond that. Beneath that, two to watch are Andrew Burke (20) the former Crescent Comp and Irish Schools out-half currently with the Munster Academy, while in Leinster there is the former St Columbas College and UCD out-half Ian McKinley (20), who is a real box of tricks.

Meanwhile, Blackrock College Schools out-halves Ian Madigan (20) and Brian Kingston (19) are another pair to watch. Burke and McKinley are the two to impress this observer most in recent times. All told, it makes for a better mix and the type of competition Declan Kidney and any coach with real ambition would want. As for now, it's Sexton versus O'Gara. You make your pick and take your chances.

It's hard to believe but, for once, the Munster man is not in pole position ahead of the first championship selection of the season. That said, it's anyone's guess as to which way Kidney, a former out-half himself, will go.

Professionalism demands a much more cut-throat approach than ever. In the St Mary's RFC yearbook, in a wide-ranging Q&A session, Sexton, when asked what advice he offered O'Gara after Gordon D'Arcy scored Leinster's first try in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park last May, said: "It was something that happened in the heat of the moment and if it wasn't caught on camera then nothing would have been said about it. What did I say? Nothing. It was just a long and angry shout. I regret it happened but what I will say is that things happened before that that were not caught on camera."

For sure it's a different rugby planet to the one myself, Campbell and the rest inhabited. But when you boast Magners League, Heineken Cup, Churchill Cup, Triple Crown, Six Nations and Grand Slam titles, there's little room for argument. Different game, different values, but what an incredible winning bottom line. Did someone mention reincarnation?

O'Gara Profile

Age: 32

Height: 6ft

Weight: 84kg, 13st 2lbs

School: PBC

Club: Cork Con

Province: Munster

First International Cap: 2000 Six Nations v Scotland, Age 23

International Points: 929

Honours: Two Heineken Cups (2006 and ’08), Magners League (2009), Lions squad (2005 and ’09), Grand Slam (2009), Triple Crowns (2004, ’06, ’07 and ’09)

Will always remember...

Nailing the crucial drop-goal that sealed Ireland’s first Grand Slam in 61 years at the Millennium Stadium last spring.

Will want to forget...

Has met each setback in his career head on. With the series on a knifeedge, last summer’s ambitious upand-under for the Lions against South Africa which led to a crucial penalty award to the Springboks is best forgotten.

Sexton Profile

Age: 24

Height: 6ft 2ins

Weight: 92kg (14st 6lbs)

School: St Mary’s

Club: St Mary’s

Province: Leinster

First International Cap: 2009 Autumn International v Fiji, Age 24

International Points: 31

Honours: Magners League 2008, Heineken Cup (2009), Churchill Cup (2009)

Will always remember...

An ice-cool performance in last season’s Heineken Cup final was memorable, while his display against World champions South Africa last autumn confirmed his status as a real threat to Ronan O’Gara at out-half.

Will want to forget...

Bore much of the blame for Leinster’s shock defeat in Castres in the pool stages last year and, in the aftermath of this game, believed himself to be on the way out of the club. However, the season would prove to have a much happier ending for him.

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