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Monday 20 August 2018

Sexton’s horrible shank at the death will have made up Kidney’s mind

MORE than a half century of points with nine tries, seven conversions and a single penalty goal.

But coach Declan Kidney surely has to focus on one missed kick in Ireland’s 62-12 romp over Russia.

It may have seemed, and largely was, irrelevant at the time. But I’m willing to bet the single missed conversion by Jonathan Sexton in the dying minutes of the match made Kidney’s mind up about who starts in the key out-half role against Italy in Dunedin next Sunday.

For me, it has to be Ronan O’Gara. And I’d ignore talk about starting with Sexton alongside him. If he’s fit, Gordon D’Arcy should start beside Brian O’Driscoll to give Ireland a chunk of midfield experience and know how. O’Gara won the man of the match award in Rotorua yesterday, not only for his dead-eyed goal |kicking – six conversions and a penalty goal – but his masterful generalship of the play.

But two moments summed up the difference at this moment in time between O’Gara and Sexton. O’Gara’s final act before his second half substitution was to drill over from the touchline an immaculate conversion of Rob Kearney’s 64th-minute try. It was a superbly judged kick and never once deviated in line.

Sexton’s final kick at goal, a conversion attempt of Tony Buckley’s 78th-minute try after the fly-half had replaced O’Gara, was a horrible shank. It wobbled woefully wide.

As far as Ireland are concerned, at stake against Italy is a World Cup quarter-final place potentially against Wales.

They just cannot risk the danger of becoming caught up in a closely contested game, as it was when the two countries met in the Six Nations match in Rome in February, and their goal kicker missing important kicks.

As the knock-out stage approaches at this World Cup, goal kicking will become more and more important. We saw that confirmed in the Argentina-Scotland game in Wellington.

Ireland have to choose the guy in the best kicking form at out-half. And, plainly, that is O’Gara.

Just about every kicker has had problems with the Gilbert ball at this World Cup. Unless you strike it perfectly, it would seem, the ball skids off and can go well wide of the target.

Even the likes of Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson, James Hook and Felipe Contepomi have had trouble with the ball, missing missed important kicks from straightforward angles.

But Ronan O’Gara has seemed impervious to the difficulties. His kicking has been consistently good and ought to earn him first choice status in the race for the No10 jersey next weekend against the Italians.

Ireland did many good things against the outclassed Russians but they were also frustratingly untidy at times. They had numerous chances to score further tries, often after sweeping attacks downfield covering 50 or 60 metres. But too often the final pass was either not given when an unmarked colleague was available in a good position to score, or just thrown wildly. The technical quality of Ireland’s passing left a lot to be desired.

But, once again, the high quality of Sean O’Brien’s work shone through in the heavy showers at Rotorua. The Leinster flanker put in another commanding, pounding performance which put Ireland on the front foot time and again.

O’Brien is well on the way to becoming one of the stand out players at this World Cup. His continuing form and fitness are crucial to Declan Kidney’s squad making serious progress in the knock-out stages, assuming they deal with the Italians next weekend.

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