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Saturday 18 August 2018

Neil Francis: O'Gara is shoo-in to finish off Italy

AND so a professional and sub-clinical disposal of the worst side in the competition. The degree of difficulty was in single figures.

The bonus point by half-time and it's hard to quibble with a nine-try haul.

The Wallabies, however, on a dry day will put 100 on a team some of whom do not even know the rules of the game. Ireland lost their shape for 15 minutes in both halves. It is something they find difficult to achieve – enduring excellence throughout 80 against the weaker sides.

It's hard to reconcile, though, some of the blemishes which pockmarked Ireland's performance. They managed to concede 11 penalties against a side that they effectively throttled – they also turned the ball over 13 times against the Russians.

There would be widespread criticism if these numbers appeared in the post-match analysis against any of our opponents in the Six Nations. Ireland too were just a little too loose at the set piece for my liking.

That, though, is not the story of this match. In the 1991 and 1995 World Cups I played in every last single Irish game. I grumbled but got on with it.

Playing Test matches six days apart is physically debilitating, but I preferred it to giving any of my rivals a chance to shine. Ronan O'Gara got his chance to start against the Russians – we know what he can do – but he gave a telling reminder to his team management just why they cannot leave him out.

O'Gara's pre-meditated and cold-blooded kite which he flew in the immediate aftermath of one of the great Irish performances of all time was as calculatingly effective as it was divisive. O'Gara as a senior player long ago knew how to whip it up and work the media and the stage to his best advantage. He didn't have to say too much, in fact he never mentioned the word ‘retire' – just the hint of it – and let the journos do the rest.

Suddenly from not starting in the important games, he is a cast-iron guarantee to start against Italy. The self-promotional cameo was just a snowball at the top of the hill.

Yesterday, his seven from eight kicks at goal, which left him on over 90pc for the competition effectively sealed his name on the team sheet for the crucial Dunedin test. He was almost smiling as sweetly as the ball that he struck.

The cadence, poise and surety of his strike were chillingly accurate. His conversion attempt on Andrew Trimble's try hit the upright – he was as close to perfect as makes no difference and his body language in the pre-kick address told you so.

When Sexton came on late in the game his conversion attempt of Tony Buckley's try told you all you needed to know about why Leinster’s out-half will not be playing in the number 10 shirt next Sunday.

I always find an official denial confirms the allegation. When Richie Murphy stated that Sexton’s technique had not changed, maybe he had not looked at video footage of his technique.

Mark Tainton, too, Ireland's official kicking coach also seems to be in some form of denial and assurances about being unable to find the sweet spot reassures nobody. O'Gara knows exactly where it is.

Sexton’s conversion attempt was so badly struck and missed by such a margin that you would have to wonder where his mind was.

His body alignment was skewed to the left for the right-footed kick and you always felt in golfing parlance that the club face was open and he sliced the ball badly right and the further the ball travelled the further right it went.

There was no pressure to convert this kick, only the pressure in his own head that his kicking stats had dropped to the low 40s and that his place in the pivot position for the big match is certainly gone. Kidney, in his post-match analysis, trenchantly made the point that if Ireland lose to Italy they will not qualify for the knock-out stages. The mathematics of the situation tell you that he is correct.

He also stated that in his opinion the Italian game would be extremely tight. Effectively you did not have to read between the lines, and Kidney did not have to finish his sentences to know that place kickers win tight matches and that he would be going with the guy who is shooting 90pc.

Kidney would be using the guy he knows best in the pressure situations, the guy who is confident and playing within himself.

Sexton, depending on D’Arcy's injury, may still end up starting in a number 12 shirt as he is unquestionably a far superior alternative to whatever Paddy Wallace may have to offer.

You would have to feel that you would be happier to have physical presence in a 10, 12 channel which would be the Italians’ main port of call from an offensive perspective. Having Wallace and O'Gara manning it would not sit comfortably with many people.

Kidney may surprise me. He has been known to make the odd ballsy selection call and he may take the contrarian view and react negatively to O'Gara's unsanctioned personal interventions, but once again I think he has no choice but to revert to the tried and tested.

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