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Friday 17 August 2018

Brent Pope: Points swing it for ROG

NOT since the days of Campbell v Ward has the Irish rugby public been so divided on who should start in the crucial number 10 jersey for this week’s winner-takes-all match against Italy.

The Lazarus man of Irish rugby, Ronan O’Gara, has once again forced Declan Kidney’s hand, as the Irish coach has decided to revert to the over 100-times capped Munster kicker to take on the Italians.

In fairness to O’Gara, he has fought back on numerous occasions to put serious pressure on the younger man Sexton, and never more so than the last |few weeks.

Just when it seemed that Sexton had laid legitimate claims to the future of the Irish No 10 shirt, O’Gara has fought his corner well.

Of course, speculation has been rife all week that Kidney may have included Sexton in the unusual role of inside centre, something that the Australians and All Blacks have

been tinkering with for years, |but that would have seen the experienced incumbent inside centre Gordon D’Arcy out of the team.

Kidney is right to leave D’Arcy in situ – changing two positions to make one would not have made sense.

The strengths of both players have been well documented over the past few years.

O’Gara brings a wealth of experience, an ability to remain cool under pressure and a sublime kicking game, both in terms of |goal-kicking and game-management.

Conversely, Sexton brings |a youthful exuberance, a telepathic relationship with an Irish backline that is predominantly Leinster-based, and a good passing and defensive game.

But it seems that O’Gara’s pinpoint goal kicking and Sexton’s nervy World Cup start have left Kidney with no option but to start with the player he knows best.

It is easy to look at the long term future of the game and opt for Sexton, especially given O’Gara’s earlier and somewhat controversial statement that he was thinking about retirement, but Kidney knows that as a coach he will be judged on results first, and not necessarily on team-building.

On Sunday against Italy, Ireland must win the game first, and against that background they need every point they can muster.

For some reason Sexton’s usually reliable kicking radar has deserted him since arriving in New Zealand, and whether that is due to the ball (which has had its critics) or the pressure of having O’Gara breathing down his neck, the statistics read heavily in O’Gara’s favour.

Last weekend when Sexton came onto the field his nerves were almost palpable. The result was that he missed a kick that was relatively simple, and while that did not matter against the Russians, against Italy Kidney clearly realised it could be disastrous.

Having said all that, the psychological damage of continually dropping and reinstating Sexton is naturally going to play havoc with the Leinster man’s confidence and hopefully it will not affect the young player’s career.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how the Italians will play this game. It has been the same for years; and an arm-wrestle up front is not where Ireland want to be against an Italian division that will surely try and match Ireland up front.

Ireland need to kick intelligently for field position, simply because Irish forward coach Gert Small will have seen huge weaknesses in Italy’s |lineout, especially after the USA were able to put pressure on a misfiring Azzurri out of touch.

Nick Mallett, the Italian coach, has already started the war of words by saying that his Azzurri cockpit is vastly superior to Ireland’s. The outspoken South African, retiring from Italian rugby after this World Cup, may be surprised.

Since the timely arrival of tighthead Mike Ross, the Irish scrum has looked pretty comfortable against all-comers, and the Irish front three can feel fairly secure in the knowledge that they will at least hold their own in the set-piece.

When I played in Dunedin for Otago some years ago, the conditions were always the same – wet and muddy – but Declan Kidney can thank the forward planning of the Otago Rugby Union in building a |state-of-the-art stadium with a closed roof.

The firm grounds will obviously suit the team with the better attacking force out wide, and that without a doubt is Ireland.

Italy do not possess a single back that might walk into the Irish team, and Ireland need to use that extra flair and experience to their advantage.

The Irish game plan must be to get into Italian territory first, and then use their superior backs to break the Italians open out wide.

Declan Kidney needs a big game from No8 Jamie Heaslip.

Heaslip is a world class player, but at this tournament he is struggling to foot it with Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris.

The Leinster man has always been an athletic, intelligent footballer who can pull out a big performance when his country needs it most.

For the first time in his illustrious career, Heaslip is under some pressure and the mark of a good player is how he responds.

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