Has Ireland coach axed our most-capped player in desperate bid to save job?
THE most startling feature of Declan Kidney's 32-man squad announcement was the absence of Ronan O'Gara's name.
The Ireland coach has, it would seem, flexed his muscles and retired Ireland's most-capped international, and severed personal ties with the player that go back over 20 years to their days as teacher and pupil in Cork's Presentation Brothers College.
It hasn't always been an easy relationship between the pair, a side-effect of the longevity of their association. They won Munster Junior and Senior Schools Cup titles, two Heineken Cups, a Celtic League and a Six Nations Grand Slam together.
All of this makes last night's squad announcement puzzling – yet still in keeping with their relationship.
When O'Gara won his 100th cap off the bench against South Africa in 2010, it was a surprise at the time that he didn't start the game, given the magnitude of the achievement. Even then, that the occasion was allowed pass by without a fuss being made was quite astonishing.
He is now up to 128 international caps. Only Australia's George Gregan has more in the world game. The former Australian scrum-half played for his country a record 139 times.
It is true that O'Gara's form up to Saturday night's outing with Munster against Osprey's hadn't been spectacular. He wasn't at his usual best against England and he was surprisingly off-colour against Llanelli two weeks ago.
It is believed the outing against Llanelli is what prompted the decision to leap-frog Paddy Jackson over him for the deflating loss to Scotland.
But current form isn't a valid reason for this week's bombshell in light of his performance against Ospreys on Saturday night, when he was one of only a handful of Munster players who performed well.
This can only be seen as a very pointed message and statement from the Ireland coach and only he can answer why he has decided that this is the right time to drop the axe on O'Gara.
The Ireland coach's decision to discard the 35-year-old is all the more astonishing when Jonathan Sexton's likely unavailability for the game against France on Saturday is factored in. Sexton himself is understood to have accepted he "is unlikely to be available" as he recovers from the torn hamstring suffered against England.
The Leinster out-half is usually a quick healer, but this is a new injury to him and after two weeks of intensive treatment he is not expected to be included when the 23-man squad is announced tomorrow.
That leaves a situation where Paddy Jackson will start against France for just his second international cap with the similarly callow Ian Madigan on the bench as reserve. Unless, of course, Sexton makes an extraordinarily quick and timely recovery from injury.
What Kidney has done with this selection decision is to detonate the conservative tag that has hung around him throughout his career and, essentially, make his strongest case to the IRFU that he is the man to take Ireland forward beyond the conclusion of his current contract.
He has also clearly written off this year's championship and is looking forward to the 2015 World Cup.
There is no other logical reason to omit O'Gara from the match-day squad. Especially when your first-choice (Sexton) out-half is injured and the game is against a team as desperate for a win and as potentially dangerous as France. This is a selection that could scar two young players – Jackson and Madigan – at the start of their careers because, of all the teams in the Six Nations, France are the one side that every nation truly fears.
They are not going well. They have lost their opening three matches and have lurched from one crisis to another.
France remain one of only a couple of nations in the world game – New Zealand the other – who can explode on teams and absolutely crush them.
Desperate France are truly a scary proposition. To go to war with them with a pair of inexperienced out-halves, neither of whom have consistency from the kicking tee, is unbelievable.
Surely it would make more sense to have O'Gara included, even if only in a safety-net capacity, if it all goes pear-shaped on Saturday evening. Neither Jackson nor Madigan has proven they are capable of either running an international game or, indeed, rescuing or closing out a game.
It is an extraordinary gamble and one that only makes sense if this is Kidney's play regarding a new contract. It could be interpreted that this is the coach highlighting the fact that, over the last 12 months, he has introduced a host of exciting 20-somethings to international rugby with Madigan and Jackson the latest pair.
Of course, there is merit to the suggestion that, because O'Gara is unlikely to be playing international rugby next season, it behoves Kidney to plan for the future. By dint of that argument, though, anyone unlikely to feature for Ireland next season should be jettisoned.
Had Kidney included either out-half for the games against Wales or England then this decision would be easier to understand.
Or had he deemed it prudent to afford Madigan even a cursory last quarter at out-half in the Ireland Wolfhounds game against England in Galway.
He did neither. But this has been a Six Nations campaign that has been full of extraordinary decisions.
Why, for example, was Dave Kilcoyne also leap-frogged for the game against Scotland?
The Munster prop was the replacement loosehead for the opening games but Tom Court was parachuted into the team last weekend.
If Kidney truly believes that Jackson and Madigan are the future then surely they should have been included from the start?
Instead Jackson was called up after Sexton's injury and Madigan only when the squad was extended for a couple of days at the start of the week of the Scotland game.
If this is the end of O'Gara's international career then surely he deserved better.
For over a decade he has been one of the foremost international players for Ireland and his contributions to Ireland's successes has been immense.