The Ice Man Cometh….
If Ronan O‘Gara was having sleepless nights after his lions tour this summer then Jonathan Sextons outstanding international debut will have done nothing to cure the Cork mans insomnia. The Dubliner kicked seven from seven and ran his back line with the confidence of a seasoned out half. This was admittedly a lack luster performance from a desperately under strength Fijian side but the budding Ireland five-eighth can only be judged on the opposition put in front of him. The RDS was the perfect place for the St Mary’s man to make his international debut. But the rain and swirling wind meant kicking conditions were appalling, which made his performance even more impressive. Ironically Sexton himself suffers from insomnia; he claims to have not slept well for several nights before the Heineken Cup Final in May and apparently required a sleeping pill to get some shut eye before his Ireland debut last week. It didn’t show. His man of the match performance was enough to oust O’Gara in a shock selection decision from Kidney for this Saturday’s game against the world champions South Africa. A match the older man would have surely wanted to play in badly to help him exercise his demons from the second lions test. This selection will have sent shock waves through the Ireland camp. The O’Sullivan era in terms of selection will not be replicated. The fifteen untouchables are no more. Selection should not be about players settling scores. Finally places are up for grabs.
If Sexton can reproduce form anything close to his recent outings he will certainly give Declan Kidney a few headaches in terms of selection for the six nations. In American parlance this was like watching a young Joe Montana on his debut for the San Francisco 49ers. You just get the feeling Leinster’s most valuable player in the European Cup Final will go on to do special things for his country. I read in the Sunday Times this week that ‘O’Gara has more to offer’. I have no doubt he does but for my learned friends in Limerick and Cork who think we should be pinning our hopes to an ageing out half (He’ll be 34 at the next world cup) I think it’s time for a reality check. O’Gara has been a marvelous servant of Irish rugby but he will have to move over eventually just as Ollie Campbell and Eric Elwood did. I think out halves are a bit like heavy weight boxers in that they tend to stay on too long past there best. Just think if Ian Humphries could get his tackling sorted. The Ulsterman too is one to watch and will no doubt make the step up to test match level in the not too distant future.
At half time at the match on Saturday I was asked by a friend “what’s going wrong? Why aren’t we putting them away”? “There’s too much kicking said another” I heard several cries of yeah aerial pin pong boll*x”! The IRB will have to look at the new laws at the breakdown that they ushered in. They are penalising teams going forward with the ball when the ball carrier gets isolated and prevented from releasing the ball usually by the defending open side flanker. In the past when a ruck had formed the referee would cry “hands out it’s a ruck”. Not so anymore. The new laws allow for defending players to tackle the ball carrier to the ground and compete for the ball as soon as he gets back to his feet to steal it legally. A second player from the defending team is also allowed to enter the ruck to try to compete for the ball once he is also on his feet and not coming in from the side. If the ball is not pilfered by the tackler(s) the ball carrier is often penalised for holding on or one of his team mates is pinged for entering the ruck from the side or going of his (or their) feet. A penalty is awarded to the defending team which more then not results in three points. The new laws reward defending teams and have bread a culture of fear into coaches which has lead to teams now being coached to kick the ball back as soon as they get it to avoid being isolated and giving away a penalty resulting in interminable aerial ping pong or a game of kick chase crash. It also means teams are not getting hot ruck ball anymore and are almost never scoring from phase play as defending teams won’t commit large numbers to the ruck as they will have a jackal in the breakdown either pilfering the ball or slowing it up so much that his team has plenty of time to fan out across the park and organise their rugby league like defensive line. It means guys like Heinrich Brussuw, Richie McCaw and David Pocock are the future MVP’s of the game. The ideal open side now has low centre of gravity is physically imposing, quick in the loose and can pilfer or slow up opposition ball at the breakdown. Sound like anyone on the Ireland team? Unfortunately for Ireland they don’t have an open side that can match Brussuw this Saturday and I suspect he will do serious damage. The new law at the breakdown and referee interpretations of it is destroying the aesthetic of this wonderful sport. I wonder what Mr Webb Ellis would make of it all?
PS I was delighted to see Scotland beat the Wallabies at the weekend. Fantastic result. It was also great to see Martin Johnson force a smile with Graham Simmons in the pre match interview.
PPS Happy Thanks Giving (tomorrow) to all my friends in the States and all Rugby World;s American readers.