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'One out-half isn’t going to win you the World Cup, you need two'

Ronan O’Gara says Ireland need to be careful in managing their out-halves ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Irish menswear company Benetti has announced a two-year partnership with former Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions player Ronan O’Gara.
Irish menswear company Benetti has announced a two-year partnership with former Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions player Ronan O’Gara.

RONAN O’GARA KNOWS how quickly the narrative around an out-half can change.

At the moment his old teammate Johnny Sexton is riding the crest of a wave, fresh from a commanding display against Japan on the occasion of his 100th cap that showcased all the qualities that have made him such a considerable force in Irish rugby for the last decade.

The prospect of new contracts and the 2023 World Cup have been discussed by the Ireland captain over the last two weeks, so the suggestion is that Sexton is here to stay.

A bad day out for Ireland against New Zealand this weekend would raise different questions, and as Sexton knows well, being a 36-year-old out-half makes you an easy target for criticism.

“He’s such a competitor, and I think what pleases me is that he’s had plenty of adversity,” O’Gara says.

“It’s a position where it’s never plain sailing, but he’s had plenty of challenges and plenty of knockers but he’s kept coming back. Judging by that performance (against Japan) he’ll be there for a while too obviously.”

If that is the case, it presents Andy Farrell with a difficult situation. It’s hard to drop your 36-year-old out-half if he’s the best 10 you’ve got, but with limited Test windows between now and the next World Cup, he also needs to invest in Joey Carbery and Harry Byrne, if they are to be the next in line. 

“The key word is manage. There’s the managing of Johnny and then there’s the managing of option B and option C,” O’Gara continues.

At the minute option A is very strong but will that be the case in two years’ time? You don’t know. The body may or may not be in a similar situation where he’s feeling great about it himself. But what you have to pay heed to is if you want to be serious about challenging for the World Cup you need strength in depth down to the third-choice – minimum – in every position to challenge.

“So obviously Johnny is the short-term (answer), whether that can be pushed out to the medium-term or the long-term, I think we’ll probably have a better idea at the end of the summer but what we do know from other nations is the fact that it’s very difficult to be excelling (at 10), and you need your 10 to be excelling if you want to win a World Cup, excelling at that age, and that’s not a slight on Johnny, that’s just the reality of the human body and what happens.

“Irrespective of New Zealand and Argentina, there’s the Six Nations to come and there’s three tests in New Zealand (next summer) and I think all those games will pose sufficient questions to the answers we need to understand where we are in the pecking order of number one, two, three, four out-halves in the country.”

joey-carbery-and-johnny-sexton Joey Carbery and Johnny Sexton. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s also a difficult situation for the likes of Carbery and Byrne, who have been watching Sexton line out for Ireland since they were kids. Now they are tasked with trying to knock him off his perch.

“If Johnny doesn’t play 80 [minutes], who plays 30? If Joey plays 50 and Johnny plays 30 or if Harry Byrne plays 50 and Johnny plays 30, you have to make sure that these boys are in an environment that they’re getting the best out of it.

“The reality is that having such a massive presence like Johnny Sexton there or on the bench, it’s probably hard for younger guys but it’s the same with a number of other players down through the years.

If Johnny’s in the top two in the country, which he is, he’s going to be in the squad so the other out-half has to get used to that. But it is a very interesting management situation that the coaches will find themselves in because one out-half isn’t going to win you the World Cup, you need two.

“The World Cup is still 24 months away, it’s an awful long way away,” O’Gara continues.

“A year in sport is very, very long, 24 months is very far away. What will be clear probably after the November blocks is seven or eight key games where at the end of that you probably know whether you have another out-half challenging, or another two out-halves challenging.”

If the pecking order at out-half seems well established for now, the picture at scrum-half appears a little less clear.

Jamison Gibson-Park has been quietly applying some pressure on Conor Murray over the past 12 months, and with the Leinster scrum-half shining against Japan at the weekend – and Murray playing so little rugby since returning from the Lions – it is one of the few big selection calls facing Andy Farrell this week.

“I think what was very pleasing from the Irish management point of view is that Gibson-Park took his chance and he offered something different in the fact that he played the game at a really high tempo and a really fast pace that suited Ireland in this game, but it is one game,” O’Gara says.

“I think he’ll probably get the nod for New Zealand and he’ll be asked to do the exact same thing. Will it be as easy? No, it won’t be anywhere near (as easy). Conor, like Johnny, is a survivor and he’ll look to respond once again, and it will be interesting to see where we are at the end of November.”

jamison-gibson-park Gibson-Park impressed against Japan. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

While Murray offers experience and perhaps a better understanding of the defensive side of the game, Gibson-Park has shown an ability to get Ireland playing at tempo while also varying the point of attack. His creative approach against Japan also helped Sexton thrive, but O’Gara says Ireland’s system shouldn’t alter too much based on who starts at nine.

“It’s not about the individual, I think that’s the most important thing about the coach getting his message across about how he’s going to set up Ireland. With that, he’ll have key roles for his 9, for his 10, for his hooker, for his 8 and for his 15, so it’s obviously team buy-in that is going to be very important. 

“If you have one nine coming off and one nine coming in doing something different, then that’s how systems break down and that’s how players get frustrated.

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“The pace of the game against Japan probably slowed down a little bit when Conor came in, but maybe that was because of a lack of cohesion – having eight guys who hadn’t started coming in, and they probably hadn’t had as many reps as the starting team to show what they were capable of.”

Overall, the La Rochelle Director of Rugby was encouraged by what he saw at the Aviva Stadium last week, as Ireland now turn their focus to the more pressing challenge of the All Blacks.

“Japan have something about them, but didn’t show it in Dublin. They weren’t allowed to show it because Ireland got their approach spot on, but it clicked with the idea of hitting space. So many coaches use that, but I think for me it’s a perfect example of what the coach is looking for.

He’s looking for the players to back their instincts and back their decisions and play that ball at the space, and that was probably epitomised best by James Lowe running great lines outside his 22, that’s probably an irregular line for a lot of wingers, but he’s been given free reign by management to go get as many touches on the ball and run holes as much as he can.

“I’d chatted to Paul (O’Connell) a little bit about, not necessarily about Ireland, but about rugby, and what they were looking to do, and what teams are looking to do. 

“You could see that it all came together for them really well in that attacking kicks, threatening backs behind forwards running great lines, backs putting forwards through holes, backs putting backs through holes, backs putting a kick through for backs, backs putting kicks through for forwards. 

“The interplay was really good. The capacity for the forwards to play the ball out of the tackle… There were statistics that you wouldn’t associate at all with an Irish team. It’s hugely, and pleasantly surprising. It caught an awful lot of people, me included, off guard, because I was expecting more of a structured game.

“It just shows that when you get buy-in, and belief in another way of playing, it made it so interesting to watch.”

Irish menswear company Benetti has announced a two-year partnership with former Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions player Ronan O’Gara. O’Gara will front Benetti’s new campaign and it’s Autumn Winter ’21 collection which is available at featured retailers nationwide and exclusively online at Benetti.ie

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Ciarán Kennedy

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