Six Nations: O’Gara optimistic despite threat from Owen Farrell

Coaching duties in Auckland will dovetail with TV punditry in Dublin for Six Nations

Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O’Gara, who will be flying from Christchurch, New Zealand to Dublin to join the Virgin Media studio panel for analysis of the Guinness Six Nations matches. Photograph: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O’Gara, who will be flying from Christchurch, New Zealand to Dublin to join the Virgin Media studio panel for analysis of the Guinness Six Nations matches. Photograph: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

 

On Thursday evening in Christchurch, Ronan O’Gara will begin the long haul to Ireland, arriving in Dublin at Friday lunchtime and thus, he hopes, in sufficiently good time to be in the Virgin Media TV studio for the Guinness Six Nations opener between France and Wales that evening.

He is, he admits, cutting it fine.

But these are also important pre-season days for the Crusaders and their assistant coach, who begin the defence of their Super Rugby crown against the Blues in Auckland on Saturday fortnight.

“We could be facing a midfield of Sonny Bill [Williams], Ma’a Nonu and Rieko Ioane, probably the biggest 12-13-11 combination you’d ever come across in the history of rugby,” notes O’Gara dryly.

At least he will provide his thoughtful analysis of Ireland’s opening two games against England and Scotland, as well as England-France on Sunday week, before flying back to Christchurch for that Auckland game, the first of nine Crusaders games on successive weekends.

He hasn’t missed a beat of the Irish season, be it the November window, the Pro14 or Europe, and much else besides, and is genuinely confident about Ireland’s wellbeing.

Under Joe Schmidt, especially since the last World Cup, we’ve been watching a hugely ruthless operation in full swing

“I think they’re fixed better than ever. I’m not in there, which is probably good sometimes because you can give a more honest appraisal of it, but one statistic jumped out at me, and that was that the Irish teams have won 17, drawn one and lost one of 19 games against English clubs in the last two seasons in the Heineken Cup. That’s a staggering statistic.

‘Ruthless operation’

“Sometimes we presume that now is the norm. It isn’t the norm. Under Joe Schmidt, especially since the last World Cup, we’ve been watching a hugely ruthless operation in full swing. I don’t know when it will stop, but I don’t think it will stop any time soon. The quality of player is really good. For the first time in the history of the Six Nations we’re going to be saying ‘Jeez, he didn’t make the 23!’” says O’Gara.

Not that O’Gara isn’t wary of an England team with players such as Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi. He admires them all hugely.

“With Farrell at 10, they’re a stronger team,” says Ireland’s most capped 10 of all time.

“I think he’s a great player and a great competitor. And with that hub they’re very dangerous. I could see them winning a World Cup with Farrell at 10. That’s how strongly I regard him as a player. I think mentally and physically he’s very good. I’m just not sure [George] Ford is ruthless enough at that level. And they’re a different team with Tuilagi. I like Tuilagi as a rugby player. He just hasn’t had much joy lately with injuries.”

“The two Vunipolas and Itoje would add to any pack. They’ve always had good packs, but I keep going back to Twickenham,” says O’Gara in reference to last March’s Grand Slam coronation.

“I’ve never seen an Irish dismantling of an English team so comfortably in a game with so much at stake, and what has changed since then?”

O’Gara acknowledges Ireland were on a roll then, and are going to need a squad in the likely event of injuries, but counters: “Joey Carbery’s move to Munster has been fantastic for everyone. He’s grasped his opportunities and put the heat on Johnny. Obviously Johnny is the boss, but I think it just makes everyone perform better if you’ve a fella snapping at your heels like that.”

Other factors

And there are other factors which heighten O’Gara’s optimism about Saturday.

“I’m just picturing the scenario, Ireland-England in the Aviva – this is a game that supporters only get once every two years. This is the most exciting game, outside of New Zealand, for the fans. There’ll be a cracking atmosphere and, out in the Carton House, Ireland will put a big emphasis on training with intensity, and getting their heart rates up over a certain threshold, and being able to perform under pressure.

France probably have to win and if the French get a good star, their belief will grow

“They’re well organised as a coaching group, I wouldn’t underestimate that. Obviously it’s the Joe show, and he sets the tone and the mindset, for everything good about it. But they’ve a serious coach in Farrell. I think the boys are energised when the opposition have it [the ball]. The vibe to work for each other was always there but I just think they know they have a good thing going among them and they’re playing for each other big-time.”

O’Gara actually rates Friday’s France-Wales set-to as a rival for the game of the opening weekend, given the degree to which it will make the winners contenders.

“France probably have to win and if the French get a good star, their belief will grow. It’s an absolutely key game for them. And we know what Wales can do in this competition. If Wales turn them over in Paris it’s a massive boost to their chances.”

Stewing

He laughs when he says it, but O’Gara actually suspects France might win, simply because they’ve been stewing since being “well beaten by Fiji” in November, and the renewed emphasis on the French team with the 2023 World Cup on home soil.

Two seasons ago, O’Gara forewarned from the outset that Scotland and Wales could be the problematic games. Ireland lost both.

“The beauty of this for all of us that are washed up on the couch watching it, I think if Ireland underperform, Scotland will win,” he says of the round two Murrayfield meeting. “They’re dangerous. They’ve a massive surge in confidence from two teams in the quarter-finals in the Heineken Cup – and deservedly so.”

And ultimately?

“Irrespective of whether Wales beat France in Paris this Friday, we know that they’re going to be firing in round five, because they’re a serious momentum team and Ireland coming to Cardiff on the last day, if Wales have only two wins at that stage, that’s the game they’ll want to win. But history will also tell us that if Wales get a good start, they’ll be a bloody hard team to stop.”

So, in the heel of the hunt, O’Gara comes to one conclusion.

“I think the Wales-Ireland game could decide the championship.”

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