O'Gara will have to draw on all his inner reserves if selected
Of all the players Declan Kidney and the Ireland management would not have wanted to be laid low in this Six Nations, Jonny Sexton would possibly have been uppermost on their list. And of all the players they would have wanted to have enjoyed a restorative outing over the weekend, it was Ronan O’Gara in Munster’s Rabo PRO12 game away to the Scarlets on Saturday evening.
Alas, it didn’t happen, Munster going down to an 18-10 defeat which would have done little to alleviate the growing concerns about O’Gara’s form. Most untypically, he even missed a couple of penalties from more or less in front of the posts. O’Gara looked to be taking the ball flatter to the gain line, and tried a variety of ploys to get Munster to break down the Scarlets defence, but suffered along with everyone else for some of the confusion in their attacking game.
O’Gara also appears to have plenty on his mind, aside from the new direction Munster are seeking to take under Rob Penney and Simon Mannix. A new contract beyond the end of the season has still to be sorted out, and no doubt, was seeing his publicised hopes of making another Lions tour ebb as he was confined to cameo roles behind Sexton since last starting for Ireland against Wales in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
In his brief endgames against South Africa and Argentina O’Gara appeared almost to be trying too much, such as when kicking away possession with a chip ahead in the game’s final play against the Boks and then having a short 22-metre restart charged down in the build-up to Argentina scoring late on.
Until the England game, when missing a penalty by inches compounded a fraught day during which O’Gara was twice corralled off slow ball by advancing English strong men before the game effectively finished with a Mike Ross fumble off O’Gara’s pass, one could understand the Ireland management’s continuing faith in the player.
It was not as if either Paddy Jackson or Ian Madigan were tearing down trees and O’Gara’s form for Munster was good. It’s also worth bearing in mind that last Saturday was his first start in five weeks. So much of the debate is shrouded by provincial allegiances nowadays and the man who has nervelessly helped deliver so many dramatic wins (not least a Grand Slam) deserves better than some of the criticism being directed at Ireland’s all-time record points scorer.
With so many injuries, and another probable debutant at inside centre in Luke Marshall, the desire to turn to experience is understandable, all the more so away from home in what is a must-win game if Ireland are to remain contenders for the Six Nations title.
Ironically, given they have not always enjoyed a harmonious relationship, Kidney’s statement of faith in O’Gara probably ups the ante for the coach more than if he had gone with the suddenly popular flow and picked Madigan or Jackson, all the more so given the stakes for the head coach and his assistants.
It may not, strictly speaking, be a form selection, but Kidney and co will be fervently hoping the old adage regarding form being temporary and class permanent holds true again. Presuming O’Gara is selected from the start this week, he will have to draw upon all his inner reserves of self-belief and experience, but if anyone can, O’Gara can. And save for Brian O’Driscoll, if anyone has enough credit in the bank to warrant another opportunity, it is surely O’Gara.
Nor is the case of either Jackson or Madigan utterly compelling. For sure, Jackson is a talented player. He takes the ball to the gain line, as he underlined in the Ireland XV’s handsome win over a half-hearted Fiji, and the plethora of late hits Jackson took that day was proof of that.
Variety of passes
Jackson has very good hands and a wide variety of passes in his repertoire. It helps that Ulster’s game plan has so much clarity to it. Much of the time, Jackson has three or four options to pass to, which helps to check defence and enable him to put players into space with his wristy array of hard flat passes.
At Ulster, there’s also no doubt Ruan Pienaar takes pressure off his outhalf in a way no other scrumhalf on the planet does. This extends to beyond reassuming the place-kicking duties after Jackson’s mid-season wobbles, and on Friday again incorporated taking the penalties to touch and the majority of kicks from hand.
But from an Irish perspective, this is hardly ideal. It could accentuate the need to have Fergus McFadden in the match-day squad on Sunday.
That Jackson has been ahead of Madigan heretofore has been largely predicated on the Ulsterman being a starting outhalf in the Heineken Cup since last season’s semi-finals.
That said, Madigan is taking the place-kicks now for Leinster as well as much else, and having acquitted himself so admirably as an emergency fullback, would have brought a bit more variety to the bench.
Most likely, not too much can be read into Madigan’s late call-up yesterday. His recent run in the Leinster team has come a little too late for him but, as evidenced by his accomplished performance at the RDS, he is probably in the best form of the outhalves still standing.