O'Gara's experience an essential asset for must-win assignment in Murrayfield


From The Blindside:Some games are made for experimentation. Sometimes the circumstances leave a coach with no choice. Funny enough, I was nearly involved in the most famous one from an Ireland point of view. When Warren Gatland threw five new caps into the Scotland game in 2000 after a disastrous defeat against England, one of them was Simon Easterby. The previous week, I had been down to play in the ‘A’ international against England but I got injured in the Heineken Cup for Munster and I had to pull out of the squad.

Next thing you know, Simon had a stormer against England, got picked against Scotland along with Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Shane Horgan and John Hayes and played a big role in the 44-22 win. They beat Italy in the next game and then went to win in Paris a fortnight later. The experiment worked big time.

This is different. Back then, Gatland had no choice but to throw caution to the wind and completely change things around. His team had been completely outclassed against England and if he didn’t do something drastic, the whole championship would have been a disaster. That’s just not the case this time around. The performance against England 10 days ago was disappointing but it wasn’t anything compared to the one in 2000. There’s no doubt it was a backward step but I don’t go with this idea it was a huge one.

People need to have a bit of perspective here. A very good England team beat an Ireland team that was short key frontline players like Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe going into the match and lost Simon Zebo and Johnny Sexton during it. Since then, Gordon D’Arcy, Mike McCarthy and Cian Healy have been ruled out as well.

That’s well over 300 caps gone from the team through circumstances beyond the coach’s control. I don’t think there’s a coach in the world who wouldn’t make it his priority to get some experience into the side given that situation.

Playing pool

The vultures are out for Declan Kidney and for Ronan O’Gara but I honestly don’t see how any coach could decide that this is the game to be throwing in Paddy Jackson or Ian Madigan. We are not a country with enough depth in our playing pool to be able to lose that amount of players – four or five of them would be probable starters for the Lions, remember – and just ignore it and carry on. You have to play the situation.

Experimenting here with a young outhalf isn’t what the situation calls for. Jackson and Madigan are totally untried at this level. They’re going to be very good players but this isn’t the game for either of them.

I spent a lot of last week in the north and Jackson is so highly rated by the rugby people up there. They just think he’s going to be a superstar. Leinster people say the same about Madigan, who is playing great stuff in the Rabo for them at the minute.

And it’s very likely that all those people will be right. But for this environment? A must-win away game in Murrayfield, coming off a defeat with a team that has been decimated by injury? No way is that the right situation to be sending in an untried player in such a pivotal position like outhalf. Ronan O’Gara is the right man for this job.

Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Well no, I wouldn’t actually – not if I didn’t think it was the case. If the situation was different – if it was a home game at least or if the circumstances were a bit less pressurised, then obviously the argument wouldn’t be so cut and dried. It was the fact Ireland were so outplayed in 2000 that allowed Gatland to decide he had nothing to lose. It took the pressure off in a way. Declan doesn’t have that option because this championship is still there for Ireland.

It’s obvious Ronan has struggled a bit – he was out for a month and has looked a bit rusty in the game and a half since he came back.

But he is a mentally tough guy who can handle any situation. In a team that is crying out for an experienced head to guide them through such a pressurised situation, he has to be the clear choice. Murrayfield will be a cauldron and Scotland will see Ireland as coming there in a vulnerable state. That’s why this is no time for experimentation. You have to go with what you know.

Very quickly

Why is this not obvious to people? We seem to have turned on this Ireland team very quickly. The atmosphere towards them seems so toxic now and it feels like people won’t be happy until the coach is gone.

And anyone who disagrees gets shot down on the basis of the province they’re from or the agenda people assume they have. Starting O’Gara on Sunday is the clear, sensible choice but it will still be greeted with outrage from some.

Criticism goes with the territory when you’re involved in professional sport. Nobody minds that. I’d say within the Ireland squad this week, they will hardly feel it. But I have been flabbergasted by the change in attitudes over the past week. It has become quite nasty and there’s no balance to it. I’ll happily debate about rugby with anybody but you have to go into these things with an open mind. If you’re outraged at the idea of a man who has 120-odd caps starting a highly-pressurised, must-win game for a team that is missing half of its starters already, then you’re not even pretending to be open-minded.

There are people out there who would prefer it if Ireland didn’t win on Sunday. They would be happy to be proved right and they’d see it as hammering a nail into Declan Kidney’s coffin.

I just don’t think that’s right. I think you’ve got too involved with your own opinion if you’re at the point of hoping Ireland don’t win any game.

Scotland will look at Ireland and think the game is there for the taking. They’ve come back from a disastrous November and a really poor performance from the clubs in the Heineken Cup to put together a decent team. They’ll miss Euan Murray because the game is on a Sunday but other than him, it looks like Alisdair Strokosh will be their only injury. They will see this as a chance to get after Ireland and really exploit any weaknesses.

Key men

It will be up to Ireland to go out and show here are no weaknesses to exploit. For that reason, I think one of the key men this week will be Enda McNulty. It’s important the players get into a good frame of mind, that they overcome the injury list and the England defeat and all the negative reaction to it. Ireland could be vulnerable here unless they get themselves mentally right in time for the game. That’s where the experienced players come in – Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and, yes, Ronan O’Gara. There’s a lot of leadership gone out of the team so it’s up to these guys to get a reaction for the Scotland game.

I think they will pull it off. There’s enough quality left in the team to win the game. It’s going to be physical encounter – Dean Ryan has brought that abrasiveness to the Scottish pack – and they will target Ireland from the start.

England gave them a perfect template for how to play against Ireland and if they can replicate the sort of pressure England brought, they will feel they have a great chance. I would imagine they will play with their back three back, just as England did, in order to squeeze Ireland back into their own half of the pitch.

Ireland didn’t deal well with that pressure in the Aviva and so they will have to find a strategy to cope with it. To me, the obvious way to combat it is to ramp up the kicking game. That’s going to need O’Gara to be much-improved from the last day but it will need Conor Murray and Rob Kearney too. They will need to be a lot more efficient with their game plan and they will need the cool heads to carry it out.

I think they will have enough about them to pull it off.

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