Young outhalves hold key to Irish hopes of more Euro glory
Sexton, O’Gara and Humphreys are tough acts to follow
Leinster’s Jimmy Gopperth is offering stiff competition for Ireland’s Ian Madigan. Photograph: Inpho
As the DVD clips showcasing the six previous Heineken Cup triumphs by Irish sides tugged at the memory banks during ERC’s launch of their 2013-14 flagship tournaments, the thought occurred that if this is to be the 19th and last Heineken Cup as we’ve come to know and love, how nice it would be to stick one over the English and French club owners one last time.
The 18 previous cups have been neatly split three ways on six apiece (which no doubt irks Premiership Rugby and Ligue Nationale de Rugby no end) and the likelihood remains that Ireland, France or England will again supply the winner in Cardiff on Saturday, May 24th.
Of the four previous finals in the Millennium Stadium, encouragingly Leinster and Munster have won the last three, with the latter also reaching the final in 2002. However, the clips also reminded you that of the six Irish triumphs, Johnny Sexton was the outhalf for three, Ronan O’Gara for two and David Humphreys for the other.
Now, with O’Gara having joined Humphreys in retirement and Sexton decamped to Paris, the three previous Irish winners have relatively unproven 10s guiding them through the Euro minefields.
Whereas Ulster have nailed their colours to the Paddy Jackson mast, and Rob Penney yesterday declared that Ian Keatley is O’Gara’s immediate heir apparent ahead of JJ Hanrahan, Matt O’Connor instead kept us and perhaps Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth guessing until this Saturday’s set-to with Munster in Limerick and beyond.
Recalling how Jackson was pitched into the semi-final and final two seasons ago, and then Test match rugby in last season’s Six Nations, Mark Asncombe commented: “Was he ready? Maybe not.” In what is becoming, no doubt, a wearying refrain, the Ulster coach also reminded us Jackson is still only 22. “People getting off his back would be a start. He got thrown in at the deep end at a young age and he has had to learn how to swim at the deep end pretty quickly.”
Nowhere to hide
“At times there has been nowhere to hide because we haven’t had the depth to allow him to gain breath and I admire the way he has handled the pressure in the last few years. You look at the good 10s around the world and they take a few years to develop.”
Therein lies the rub, but Anscombe noted: “It will help too when Ruan [Pienaar] is back. That experience inside you takes some of the pressure off and allows him to concentrate on the game, share that workload and field management.” Pienaar returns next Monday.
Coaching O’Gara has been a “wonderful experience” admitted Penney, adding: “Now that he has moved on, because he is such a dominating character and an influential figure in Munster, it has allowed Ian and JJ to develop. There will still be some up and down periods in their early careers because 10 is a difficult position to play.”