There’s a case to be made for saying that one man already stands out head and shoulders above all others in Ireland’s squad at this Rugby World Cup.
Sean O’Brien has been simply superb out here in every game he has played. His dynamism has been renowned, his energy levels fantastic and his commitment just terrific.
O’Brien does the lot. He carries hard into attack, sets up a focal point for the team going forward, tackles ferociously when the opposition has possession, covers and links superbly like all the best back row players.
Ireland have found an absolute gem for the years to come. And what has been a double boost for Declan Kidney is that O’Brien seems to have adapted without fuss to the switch from a No. 6 to No. 7.
I don’t mind admitting, a lot of us thought the balance of the back row would not be right without David Wallace there. But O’Brien has been so good that Ireland have hardly suffered in any sense from Wallace’s loss.
Yet having said all that about O’Brien, I’d suggest one other player comes close to rivalling him as Ireland’s player of the tournament to date. Ronan O’Gara has played absolutely tremendous rugby at this World Cup. By the sheer force of his quality play, O’Gara has won the battle to be first choice No. 10.
It is inconceivable that Ireland will start the quarter final on Saturday in Wellington without him.
When a player has done all O’Gara had in the game and yet still has the inner desire and mental strength to fight his way back into the team as first choice, having lost the place, you have to say that is a very special player. Not only that, but O’Gara has upped his game in an attacking sense and has looked so much sharper because of it.
He stood a lot flatter against Italy last weekend and the whole back line benefitted. They got over the gain line time and again and a major reason for that was O’Gara’s willingness to operate much closer to the traffic and feed players through gaps close in.
And of course, then there has been his goal kicking, which has been absolutely superb. While so many other goal kickers have struggled badly with the Gilbert ball at this tournament – Jonny Wilkinson landed only three of nine attempts at goal in the match against Scotland last weekend – O’Gara has kicked beautifully.
Just about every kick he has made has sailed perfectly between the posts. His kicking has been smooth and assured and believe me, from now on in, top quality goal kicking is going to be absolutely essential at this World Cup.
That is just one reason why Ireland couldn’t think about not starting with Ronan O’Gara in their side. But in fairness to him, there are plenty of other reasons why he has rightly reclaimed the No. 10 starting jersey.
Irish fans should salute a guy who has come back as well as he has done. He’s probably playing as well as ever for Ireland. But the only difference is, he now has all that experience on those shoulders. That is perfect for Ireland.