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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 13 April 2021

Things are looking up for Ireland, says Ronan O’Gara

Former Ireland great reckons Andy Farrell could find it easier to be a head coach than a No2.

O'Gara is backing Farrell to succeed.
O'Gara is backing Farrell to succeed.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT MAY BE January 29 but it feels like Christmas Eve to Ronan O’Gara. Scanning the team-sheets, checking the form, knowing the 20th anniversary of his own debut in this competition is fast approaching, he loves the buzz and crackle of everything.

We’re near the start. Six runners go to post but only three matter. He can’t see Wales retaining their title, not with trips to Dublin and Twickenham on their itinerary.

He rates England, believes their ‘potential for growth’ surpasses everyone else but is also buying the French revolution line. For the first time since 2011, he lists France as genuine contenders. Ireland is the third name on his short-list of possible winners.

First, though, there’s a perception he needs to challenge. All week he has been hearing and reading that Andy Farrell is about to take the most significant step for man since Neil Armstrong walked through the exit door on Apollo 11.

It’s a jump he made himself six months ago, leaving the alleged comfort of being a No2 to take on the responsibility of having the final say on team selection, signing his name on La Rochelle’s team-sheet, walking the line between glory and humiliation.

And rather than shrug his shoulders, and give one of those ‘ah, you know, we’ll have to wait and see’ expressions, O’Gara has come up with a different perspective on what it is like to go from assistant to head coach. Instead of it being harder, life can become easier.

ronan-ogara O'Gara is a pundit for Virgin Media One. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There’s a context where all this makes sense. Part of the job spec of being a No2 is that you are required to respect the wishes of the man in charge, even if you fundamentally disagree with his tactical decisions or team selections.

Those rules don’t apply when you assume power, though. If you’re self-confident and independently minded, then you don’t look on the added responsibility as a burden but as an opportunity. You’re in control now. You can do things your way.

There may be a change in Andy Farrell’s title but that doesn’t mean there has to be a change in his personality,” O’Gara said. “He has a big enough presence to know that wherever he goes, he’ll have an input into the team’s culture, the decision making processes.

“So I just don’t see how there is going to be a major change in how he goes about his business. There will be tweaks; but he is not going to become a different person. He’ll know, everyone in top level sport knows, that if you’re not very good at your job then you quickly get found out.

“But Andy is good at what he does. Good coaches will encourage their players to have a go – not in a reckless way but with a purpose. Personally, I’m excited to see how they get on. Genuinely, anything could happen because the fixture list is so demanding. France and England away is traditionally the harder of the two routes to a grand slam – even though we did it that way two years ago.

“What makes it more of a challenge this time is the fact that England can still grow as a team – and we’re talking about the World Cup finalists, here. If we were to lose in Twickenham, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. 

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“Check out the stats. Away wins in this competition are so hard to get.”

So let’s do some checking. Ireland have Scotland first up – a team who last won a Six Nations game in Dublin 10 years ago. Next is Wales. It was 2012 since they last beat Ireland competitively in the Aviva. Italy – well, never mind. They won’t beat Ireland.

England might. England have won three of the last four championship games against Ireland at Twickenham. Paris, in round five, is a venue where Ireland have fared pretty well lately, two wins and a draw coming from their last four trips to the Stade de France. But both those wins were by just two points.

“With so many new coaches coming into this competition, there is a fair bit of unknown,” O’Gara says.

Wales, I feel, will suffer a bit with Warren Gatland going and with the schedule they have. A fall-off period is anticipated there.

“France have serious quality. Plus home advantage for their fixtures with Ireland and England is a huge thing. England too will be thrilled they don’t have to come to Dublin. It’s between those three teams. Momentum matters, though. Every single team knows what it’s like to start off with a W on the opening weekend.”

He expects that to happen to Ireland this Saturday, agreeing by and large with Farrell’s team-selection.

jordan-larmour-scores-their-fifth-try Larmour will freshen up the starting XV. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Behind the scrum there is not that much new blood introduced but Jordan Larmour will raise the excitement levels; Caelan Doris provides a freshness in the pack; Will Addison and Keith Earls will come into the picture when their injuries clear. There is a lot to look forward to.

“From the public’s perspective, they’ll be interested to see whether they can raise their level from what we saw from them in 2019. This is when you find out because this competition tests you in so many ways. I’ll never grow tired of watching it.”

  • Ronan O’Gara is a pundit with Virgin Media One. The channel will screen every game of the Six Nations live.

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Garry Doyle

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