Since Jonathan Sexton emerged onto the international scene in 2009, the biggest selection question in Irish rugby has been: Who is Ireland’s best No 10?
After making his debut in 2000 (and seeing off the challenge of David Humphreys a few years later), Ronan O’Gara had been the go-to guy at out-half to the point that, along with Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, his availability had become critical to the team’s success.
When Sexton carried his Leinster form into the green jersey, the question of who played 10 was suddenly a live issue in a manner not witnessed since Tony Ward and Ollie Campbell squared off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney immediately saw the benefits and has regularly referred to how Ireland are blessed to have “two world-class out-halves”. As indeed they are.
However, while both have started regularly, Sexton has tended to get the nod for the bigger matches over the past two seasons, with O’Gara (main picture, in training yesterday) used as a game-changing reserve when required.
That situation has been complicated by the rich seam of form O’Gara has hit over the same period and,at an age when most of his peers subside gracefully into retirement, the 34-year-old has been playing the rugby of his career.
While the two have a healthy working relationship, having that heat on you from a player as accomplished as O’Gara creates its own pressures and Sexton (right, in training yesterday), while still playing well, has shown signs of inhibition in the August series and opening World Cup games.
Two into one won’t go, but a solution, whether by accident or design, has presented itself to the Ireland management – play the two “world class 10s” together.
It happened in defeat to England last month — albeit when it was forced upon the management — and Ireland immediately looked a more cohesive. Afterwards, Kidney played down the partnership, while acknowledging that it was good to know it could work if called upon.
Last weekend, in the seminal World Cup triumph over Australia, the two were united again — and this time is was deliberate.
When Gordon D’Arcy was forced off with a hamstring strain, the expected replacement was Andrew Trimble, who could either slot straight in at centre or onto the wing with Keith Earls or Tommy Bowe moving inside. Instead, on trotted O’Gara, out moved Sexton and the Irish backline acquired a sharper edge with the two sharing playmaking duties to good effect.
Now, it has become a genuine selection option. Ireland have quality options at 12 in D’Arcy, who showed an en
couraging return to form and his Leinster team-mate Fergus McFadden, whose scintillating form has not received the reward it deserves for province or country due to the level of competition.
But having Sexton at 12 provides something different, an extra playmaking edge that can unsettle opponents – plus it ensures O’Gara is on the pitch from the off.
And, it will be only Sexton at 12. Firstly, he is better equipped for the role and secondly, when asked about the partnership two weeks ago, O’Gara was enthusiastic but firm: “It’s an option but it’s Jonny going to 12 not me, I won’t be shifting!”
That presents its own difficulty because as Alan Gaffney noted a few days ago, Sexton, as all top-grade professionals should, would prefer to be top dog in his primary position.
“I think Sexton has got all the attributes for a good 12,” said the Ireland backs coach. “He’s an excellent defender, he’s very, very good at it. He prefers to play 10 and he’s a world-class 10, but they’re both world-class players and trying to get both into the team is a difficult challenge.”
Those words provide clear Indications that Gaffney is giving the move serious consideration and, having worked with O’Gara at Munster, Sexton at Leinster and both at national level, the Australian’s observations carry considerable clout.
As do Kurt McQuilkin’s, the Kiwi-born former Ireland 12 and Heineken Cup-winning Leinster defensive coach, who has filled the roles that New Zealanders call ‘first five-eighth’ and ‘second five eighth’ in his playing days, and is excited by the prospect of Ireland following an All Blacks template.
“I think Sexton is well cut out for playing at second five-eighth as we call it in New Zealand,” said McQuilkin.
“He’s a good defender, he kicks well and his passing game is good and I thought they complimented each other.
“It is definitely something Ireland could go with from the start. It is something New Zealand rugby leans heavily on, first five-eighth and second five-eighth.
“You think back to Andrew Mehrtens and Walter Little, who used to play 10 for North Harbour but 12 for the All Blacks inside Mehrtens and they could vary their play nicely on it.”
It is a radical move and might never happen, but there is compelling logic behind the arguments for starting O’Gara and Sexton together and weight in the words of its advocates.
Another string to Kidney’s bow.