Six Nations: Out-half confusion an Irish weakness
Who is Ireland's first choice out-half?
With five games to go until the start of the World Cup, we are still none the wiser after Jonathan Sexton was picked ahead of Ronan O'Gara for Saturday's showdown with England.
In such a pivotal position, it is not a situation that inspires confidence and is in stark contrast to the certainty of other World Cup contenders. New Zealand have Dan Carter, Australia look to Quade Cooper, England are starting Toby Flood with Jonny Wilkinson the designated cover and even the ‘drop-meister' himself, France coach Marc Lievremont, has kept faith in Francois Trinh-Duc.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney has consistently referred to Ireland's good fortune at having two quality 10s to choose from but surely it is time to make that choice. Continuing to swap between Sexton and O'Gara irrespective of performance breeds and spreads uncertainty through a squad whose Six Nations campaign has been defined by that quality.
Look at it from O'Gara's point of view. He comes off the bench to save the day against Italy, nearly does the same against France having been produced when the Irish were floundering, earns a starting spot against Scotland and then Wales and, despite performing strongly in both games, is hauled off early at which point Ireland go into free-fall. Then he is dropped.
At 34 years of age and after 107 Ireland caps, O'Gara is entitled to feel a little bemused.
There are a couple of theories behind Sexton's inclusion. One is that, with nothing tangible to play for, Ireland can go for broke against the English and Sexton is the man for throwing caution to the wind. However, as was discussed here yesterday, O'Gara's record of masterminding attacking rugby is well established.
Another theory is that Sexton is starting to restore his confidence after a campaign where he has lacked his Leinster assurance, most obviously demonstrated by the skewed kick to touch which set up Wales' ‘try' last weekend and then fluffing a penalty he would ordinarily slot without hesitation.
A third hypothesis is that Sexton's inclusion is on a rotational basis but, while the intensity of the Six Nations has natural uses as a World Cup testing ground, Ireland need a victory to instill self-belief after a campaign which captain Brian O'Driscoll yesterday described as “topsy-turvy” and all the evidence suggests that prerogative would be best served with O'Gara at 10.