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Rugby World Cup: England's stupid call shows how lucky Irish are to have Jonny Sexton

By George Hook

Published 25/09/2015

Disappointing call: England’s George Ford (left) has been replaced by Owen Farrell for tomorrow’s clash with Wales
Disappointing call: England’s George Ford (left) has been replaced by Owen Farrell for tomorrow’s clash with Wales

Critics of Ronan O'Gara used to love nothing more than highlighting his defensive frailties.

O'Gara was never the strongest tackler, but he was more than efficient in the art of bringing down an opponent and he was always willing and brave.

You don't forge a successful professional rugby career without being able to tackle.

Besides, as an out-half, his skill-set in other areas more than compensated for any perceived weakness he might have had in defence.

I used to wonder about the motivation behind that criticism. Did those dismissing O'Gara's defensive abilities favour an out-half with a limited kicking game and a poor pass, but who could cut opponents in two?

Would they have rather O'Gara make way for a guy capable of upending the opposition number eight on a regular basis?

O'Gara's regular English sparring partner at the time, Johnny Wilkinson, was often held up as an example of what an out-half should be capable of in defence.

It didn't seem to register with the anti-ROG brigade that Wilkinson suffered enormous physical damage for his tackling ability and that, in terms of being able to release a back line, O'Gara was actually miles ahead of his former Lions team mate.

I always felt that anyone calling for O'Gara's head after a missed tackle was merely highlighting one small portion of his game, while conveniently ignoring his phenomenal array of skills.

Stuart Lancaster has done something similar with his England team to play Wales this weekend. Incredibly, George Ford has been dropped from the starting XV in favour of the physically bigger, but far more limited, Owen Farrell.

Initially it makes little sense, until you consider that Farrell's father, Andy, is the England backs coach and is bound to have weighed in on the side of his son.

As it happens, Wales are crippled with injuries, so it probably won't make a huge difference to the end result and England should still come out on top.

But dropping one of the most exciting young fly halves in Europe for a crunch World Cup game on home soil is a daft and hugely disappointing call. Is Farrell's defence so much better that it negates Fords wizardry with the ball?

If England pay a price for it, Lancaster only has himself to blame.

Luckily for Joe Schmidt, Ireland's current number ten is one of those rare species with a full armoury at his disposal. Watching Sexton in full flow against Canada last Saturday was a joy and if he can carry that confidence and control throughout the rest of the tournament, who knows how far Ireland will go.

Perhaps Schmidt will decide to rest his most precious commodity for the rough and tumble Romanians on Sunday, but I think Sexton should play. Saturday was the first glimpse of a return to top form in quite some time and I would hate to think that Sexton's progress might be stifled by an omission this weekend.

France struggled to deal with the physicality of their Romanian opponents midweek and Ireland need to make sure of a four-try bonus point. Sexton should start.

There will be changes though. I expect Darren Cave will get his moment to shine in the centre before returning to tackle-bag duty in training and Tommy Bowe should be afforded the opportunity to atone for his howler against England at Twickenham.

But whether or not Bowe or Simon Zebo can do enough to dislodge the likes of Dave Kearney, Keith Earls or even Luke Fitzgerald from the starting team, regardless of their performance, remains to be seen. Romania, like Canada, will be hopeful of an upset, but Ireland will win comfortably.

It is a serious mark against the tournament organisers and World Rugby that the second tier nations are suffering for their status. Romania have to play France and Ireland within four days of each other, while Japan's heroics against South Africa were undone by an inevitable surrender against Scotland.

It was always going to be an impossible task for Eddie Jones side to raise themselves for another huge challenge so soon after the greatest result in their history. Japan, to their credit, were willing and competitive, but victory was never a realistic possibility.

Belfast Telegraph

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