Crazy thought? Go to New Zealand without O'Gara

 

Maybe it’s time to start planning for a potential number-two choice for outhalf Jonny Sexton, writes LIAM TOLAND

Last week’s game in Thomond Park, where Ulster fell well short of Munster, was in the main difficult to watch. There were some new faces and others building such as Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell, whom I watched for long periods. He is very comfortable in the seven shirt and certainly has the physique and suitable activity levels.

He was much more effective against Ulster this time out but struggled in the Heineken Cup quarter-final to impose himself which is entirely understandable at the high-octane levels, especially the manner in which Chris Henry played. It is though an indicator of the physical tasks awaiting him down the track.

There was consistency in his play that impressed around the park. If he can enter the contact testing the defender’s weakness when he is ball carrying in traffic he will develop a better outcome in the recycle. Too often the recycle was taking upwards of 10 seconds which for a linking seven is too slow.

Adding to this the regularity with which Munster nullified brilliant line breaks by the next forward arriving and peeling around the evolving ruck to eke out two metres before going to deck and affording another 10 seconds to the opposing defensive set-up is something I hope new coach Rob Penney addresses immediately on arrival.

On that point it was interesting to read yesterday how Donnacha Ryan wasn’t used to the things Peter O’Mahony would do when he initially arrived at Munster “but it was actually brilliant”. Looking at Munster’s line-up to face the Ospreys tonight there is a player fitting this bill. The fact Lifeimi Mafi is departing Munster in a matter of weeks after 143 appearances raises the point about internal playing challenges. His unpredictability has been in essence his predictability where in defence he is extraordinarily aggressive, often impatient, with his line often being broken which can be exploited by an educated attack but never shirked.

At just over 14 stone he gains massive yards through his bouncing feet and hard “step-and-go” through the tackle. As soon as he arrived on the ball regardless of field position I sat up in my seat. I did so to observe the red shirts around him and surprisingly, after 143 appearances, there were no obvious trail runners clambering into position. Yes players did link up but O’Donnell for one could reap many yards off Mafi if he anticipated the potential break and subsequent offload. In other words, let Mafi do all the hard work while you put yourself into that hard-angled support line.

Tonight’s game will be the one to watch and not just for PRO 12 reasons but All Black ones. How close Ireland coach Declan Kidney is to his travelling party we will soon find out. Will Paul O’Connell make it and, if not, how will this affect Kidney’s ambition? Without David Wallace and O’Connell in New Zealand would have been unthinkable. Step up O’Mahony and Ryan amongst others.

For me it is the touring half-back partnerships that intrigue and with Ian Keatley starting at 10 tonight it does get me thinking about the potential touring outhalves. Since RWC 2011 I’ve been fascinated with the “I step in, you step out again” rostering at outhalf. Competition has brought out the best in our players none more so than Ronan O’Gara who defies age. That said Jonny Sexton is the future and his defensive display against Clermont was sensational.

Having O’Gara on hand to aid the transition is crucial. But at what distance should that be? In the touring environment the experience and class of the veteran will rub off on those non-Munster players who know him less well but there is real merit in omitting him from the squad. However, should an injury occur to Sexton, and considering the opposition that awaits, it should be qualified that O’Gara would be quickly brought in to start.

Is that crazy?

In one aspect yes, especially considering his form and hunger for the Test but would Sexton benefit from the added responsibility as the clear number one and would space be afforded a potential number two in preparing for that time when O’Gara won’t be around. Either way, who might that number two be and is he ready to tour New Zealand sitting on the bench with a chance of major pitch time.

Off those available for selection Keatley starts for Munster tonight. Ian Madigan is gaining ground in Leinster under Sexton and has improved greatly this season, especially in attacking the line. That said I wonder about his overall control of a fixture. Against Montpellier, Madigan guided Leinster to a handsome Heineken Cup victory but at times he drifted out of the first receiver slot, allowing others to take control and packets of time slipped by where he appeared absent. This had no overall effect on the outcome but even a well-oiled machine like Leinster must have its generals driving them on and when Sexton is at the tiller the vast majority of plays flows through him.

For all the wonderful touchdowns Madigan has managed if he is to be considered for higher levels his dominance of the less obvious aspects of the fixture must be assured.

This then leaves Ulster’s Paddy Jackson who has the least pitch time with his province and, in Irish eyes, this could be reason enough to leave him behind but I think that could be an opportunity lost for his development in the fast lane. For many that breakthrough to international level comes while riding a curve of confidence based on short representative excellence at lower levels. Clearly miles behind O’Gara at present but a senior tour to New Zealand would do wonders for him and our future.

Mick Sherry is another on tonight’s teamsheet that could quickly find himself in the number two slot for Ireland. Having played somewhat bit parts in the past with injury and selection, he is now oozing with the class of a “rugby playing” hooker. Watch him around the ball and how he shifts his feet in contact, always gaining yards and, most importantly, his body position through contact affords him a great chance to break the tackle or worst-case scenario offload to a trail runner (O’Donnell take note). His technical ability will be tested but his abrasive ball carrying and comfort in open play will be a wonderful commodity in New Zealand. Richardt Strauss’ naturalisation will influence this decision but Sherry should not be ignored.

It was a difficult night for Paul Marshall at scrumhalf for Ulster where, behind a mostly beaten pack, he struggled under the immense strain of a tour de force from Conor Murray.

Wednesday night’s Irupa awards was a night of celebration where our best players were recognised by themselves and ironically it was they who did not celebrate! That said a massive thank you to Irupa’s chief executive Omar Hassanein and team for a wonderful night.

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