Rugby World Cup: O’Gara has world at his feet
As you were for Ireland in selection and, ideally for coach Declan Kidney, in performance when they run out to face the Welsh in the pick of this weekend's quarter-finals on Saturday.
World Cups are all about momentum and Ireland's powerful second-half showing against the Italians last Sunday has provided that in abundance. Aside from the injury to hooker Rory Best, it was always probable that Kidney should stick with the same team and, after a comprehensive team performance in Dunedin, it would have been extremely harsh if anyone had to make way.
As ever, the main area of debate revolved around the half-backs and this selection provides the latest surge in the see-saw contest between Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton for the No 10 jersey. Despite O'Gara's convincing display against Italy and excellent form throughout this tournament, there was always the chance that Kidney could revert to Sexton — just as he did for the Six Nations showdown with England last March.
Sexton has been going well in general play, defending superbly on his introduction against Italy, and his two place kicks (the second a magnificent effort from the left-hand touchline) in that cameo indicate that those ‘yips' have been dealt with.
The arguments in favour of going with Sexton revolved around a more physical defence and running game and there is no doubt that Wales will target O'Gara's channel. But then, they always target O'Gara's channel — never more so than in the Grand Slam decider in Cardiff two years ago — and he tends to come through, as a record of eight wins from 12 matches against the Welsh testifies.
It means that the 34-year-old is now re-established as Ireland's go-to man at out-half, just as he always intended it to be, despite being widely written off and consigned to back-up role last year. He was never going to accept that status — and that is not hindsight speaking, it was the reason behind the ‘O'Gara's days as leading man far from over' column in the November 5, 2010 edition of the Irish Independent when Sexton had been installed as long-term No 1.
While the ‘O'Gara retirement' story got out of hand after the victory over Australia a few weeks ago, this is definitely the out-half's final World Cup and he is determined to leave his mark. That is one of the primary reasons for sticking with him at 10, as is the weather forecast which, even though the rain is predicted to ease up come the weekend, will certainly include the usual Wellington wind.
Add in the knock-out factor and incredible high pressure of the occasion and it is a situation set up for the Munster man. Having Sexton there ready to come in is a source of considerable comfort for Kidney who has managed a situation that must be the envy of his New Zealand counterpart Graham Henry after Dan Carter's exit from the tournament.
At scrum-half, Conor Murray's retention backs up Kidney's decision to bring him to New Zealand on the basis of raw talent rather than proven experience. Murray has been superb and, in many ways, the individual story of the tournament. The ceaseless comparisons with Wales' equally physically imposing No 9 Mike Phillips will wreck Murray's head this week but, as he showed against Italy when he fronted up to Sergio Parisse and the Italian forwards as well as providing a slick service to his backline and an attacking option from the base, he has the game for his level
Like Sexton, Eoin Reddan provides quality cover as back-up and is having a good tournament. Andrew Trimble continues to push hard for inclusion but Keith Earls has been flying and Gordon D'Arcy produced his best performance for some time last weekend.
Up front, it is a ‘same again please, lads' request to the Irish eight that dominated the Wallabies and Italians, except for the likelihood of Sean Cronin coming in for Best.
A huge challenge for the Limerick man who does not want for talent but needs to believe he is 'the man' and Cronin should take encouragement from doing well in regular one-on-one contests with Wales hooker Huw Bennett at club level with Connacht.
Similarly, Ireland should draw confidence from the knowledge that they regularly dominate the Welsh players in domestic competition and that they have a side that opened up a world of opportunity by beating the Wallabies. It would be a shame to waste it.