Friday 23 August 2019

George Hook: Shades of O'Gara critics as England go on the defensive with No 10 pick

O'Gara was never the strongest tackler, but he was efficient in the art of bringing down an opponent and he was always willing and brave
O'Gara was never the strongest tackler, but he was efficient in the art of bringing down an opponent and he was always willing and brave

George Hook

Critics of Ronan O'Gara used to love nothing more than highlighting his defensive frailties. O'Gara was never the strongest tackler, but he was efficient in the art of bringing down an opponent and he was always willing and brave.

You don't forge a successful rugby career without being able to tackle.

Besides, as an out-half, his skill-set in other areas more than compensated for any perceived weakness in defence.

I used to wonder about the motivation behind that criticism. Did those dismissing O'Gara's defensive abilities favour an out-half with a limited kicking game and a poor pass, but who could cut opponents in two?

Did they want O'Gara to make way for a guy capable of upending the opposition No 8 on a regular basis?

O'Gara's regular English sparring partner at the time, Johnny Wilkinson, was held up as an example of what an out-half should be capable of in defence.

It didn't seem to register with the anti-ROG brigade that Wilkinson suffered enormous physical damage because of his enthusiasm for tackling, and that, in terms of being able to release a backline, O'Gara was actually miles ahead of his former Lions team-mate.

I always felt that anyone calling for O'Gara's head after a missed tackle was merely highlighting one small portion of his game, while conveniently ignoring his phenomenal array of skills.

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Stuart Lancaster has done something similar with his England team to play Wales this weekend.

Incredibly, George Ford has been dropped from the starting XV in favour of the physically bigger, but far more limited, Owen Farrell.

Wales are crippled with injuries, so it probably won't make a huge difference - England should still come out on top.

But dropping one of the most exciting young fly-halves in Europe for a crunch World Cup game on home soil is a daft and hugely disappointing call. Is Farrell's defence so much better that it negates Ford's wizardry?

Luckily for Joe Schmidt, Ireland's current No 10 is one of those rare species with a full armoury at his disposal.

Watching Sexton in full flow against Canada last Saturday was a joy, and if he can keep up that confidence and control, who knows how far Ireland will go?

Perhaps Schmidt will rest his most precious commodity for the rough and tumble Romanians on Sunday, but I think Sexton should play.

Saturday was the first glimpse of a return to top form in quite some time and I would hate to think that Sexton's progress might be stifled by an omission this weekend.

France struggled to deal with the physicality of the Romanians midweek and Ireland need to make sure of a four-try bonus point. Sexton should start.

Romania, like Canada, will be hopeful of an upset, but Ireland will win comfortably.

Disadvantage

The Oaks' four-day turnaround is a serious disadvantage. It is a serious mark against the tournament organisers and World Rugby that the second-tier nations are suffering for their status.

Japan's heroics against South Africa were undone when they ran out of gas against Scotland.

It was always going to be an impossible task for Eddie Jones' side to raise themselves for another huge challenge so soon after the greatest result in their history. Japan were willing and competitive, but victory was never a realistic possibility.

If World Rugby is serious about growing this sport beyond the stranglehold of the top-tier nations, it must address the imbalance in the fixture list.

Japan had a brilliant opportunity to top their pool after victory against the Springboks. Yet, four days later, they were brought back down to earth with a bang.

At the World Cup, all teams deserve a fighting chance. Something for the tournament organisers to seriously consider ahead of Japan in 2019.

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