O’Gara backed to pass scrutiny test
There are now just 48 hours to go to the most contentious team selection of Declan Kidney's year-and-a-half reign as Ireland coach.
Although the Corkman caused a stir when he switched his team around mid-Six Nations for the trip to Scotland and then reverted back (save for the retention of Gordon D'Arcy over Paddy Wallace) for the climax in Cardiff, last season's Grand Slam team largely picked itself.
That was indisputably the case in the pivotal out-half position where Ronan O'Gara had reigned supreme for the previous five seasons resulting in consistent debate regarding the question of strength-in-depth at 10 with centre Wallace employed as the 'in case of emergency break glass' option.
However, over the last eight months Leinster's Jonny Sexton has come through to such an extent that there have been concerted calls to install him at pivot on the basis of superior form. There are also those who maintain that Sunday's clash with the Wallabies represents the perfect opportunity to see what Sexton is made of — as though Australia were some kind of training run before the tilt at the world champion Springboks a fortnight after.
Since when did Australia, the third ranked team in the world and a side Ireland have beaten only twice in 11 meetings in the professional era, become crash-test dummies?
While there is a tendency to get ahead of ourselves, that is not a failing of the Ireland rugby coach and if Kidney decides to start Sexton ahead of a man who has won 92 caps and scored 919 points for his country it certainly will not be because he wants to “see how he goes” — it will be because he thinks it is the best selection in his plan to defeat Australia.
The speculation and hype has run for weeks and, with Munster experiencing a mixed start to the season and O'Gara central to the subsequent scrutiny, it constitutes a significant test of any player's mental fortitude.
However, it is a test that O'Gara is more than capable of passing.
Last week he received a ringing endorsement from Ireland defence coach Les Kiss and now is being similarly backed by leading sports psychologist Daire Higgins — who rates O'Gara as one of the most psychologically impressive specimens in sport.
“As Ireland out-half, O'Gara comes under greater pressure and scrutiny than any other member of the team,” said Higgins.
“O'Gara is targeted by every team he plays against, no time was that more obvious than in Cardiff last year when the Welsh tried to rattle him from the off.
“You know the stuff, flankers leaving the shoulder in after he's got the kick away, pushing his face into the turf getting up — occasionally you can see O'Gara getting wound up but never to the extent that it puts him completely off his game.
“In this area I think he had a pronounced edge over Felipe Contepomi when he was out-half with Leinster. Contepomi was a wonderful player for Leinster but you always had the sense that he could be rattled.
So how does Higgins view the pretender to O'Gara's throne in terms of mental readiness?
“Jonathan Sexton has been very impressive in this regard since he's got his chance with Leinster and encouragingly for Ireland, he seems to respond to the big occasions.
“I mean, coming on in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster last season, a huge occasion, and kicking a penalty straight away spoke volumes and then there was his performance in the final when he knocked over that drop goal from 50 metres.
“I definitely think Sexton has grown psychologically and has shown the capacity to adapt to situations he encounters, it's very promising and I believe he can bring it successful onto the international stage.
“That being said, I believe O'Gara, with his experience and proven match-winning abilities, is still the main man and the current situation with him and Sexton has to be good for Irish rugby. O'Gara has not been in this situation for the last four or five years, since David Humphreys retired, but having two players pushing each other means they can bring each other on.
“It is just the type of situation to bring the best out of O'Gara — this it what makes these people the best.”