IN THE 32ND minute of Ireland’s 6-12 home defeat to England, Jonathan Sexton hacked a loose English pass forward and began the chase.
His tumble to the sopping wet turf first drew loud appeals for a penalty from the stands.
However, it quickly became obvious that Sexton’s anguish wasn’t some vain appeal for a favourable decision, it was a hamstring strain which ended his afternoon and with it, Ireland’s hope of maintaining a winning run.
Ronan O’Gara entered the arena, and the scene felt set for his triumphant return to the limelight. Instead, it was a disappointing and worrying extended cameo.
O’Gara could not muster the magic of old. His passing range could be forgiven in such soggy circumstances, but the basic errors – an almost-missed touch from a penalty and two further slices off the right boot in the second half – could not. As WhiffOfCordite.com this morning put it: “It was sad to see a great, even legendary player reduced to such a shabby level, and underlines the danger of players hanging on for too long.”
Barring some Wolverine-like powers of recovery in Sexton’s hamstring, Declan Kidney will ask O’Gara to try and roll back the clock again in Murrayfield in two weeks.
True, having the least-effective three-quarter line in the Six Nations in opposition will help the Munster play-maker, but we fear there will only be more shoe-gazing around the 35-year-old in Edinburgh.
Competition for the pivotal position has been diluted by Kidney’s anointing of Paddy Jackson as a clear third choice. After a confident start to the season where he was at the heart of one of Europe’s most potent back-lines, the 21-year-old’s inexperience has started to tell in some very iffy displays since the beginning of December. To pick Jackson would be a brave call, but to pick anybody other than O’Gara would be a brave call.
With the Championship still a possibility, now is assuredly the time to take a chance, throw an untested player to the deep end and trust that that they will swim.
The obvious alternatives to O’Gara or Jackson are Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley. The latter can be ruled out: no promotion would pain O’Gara quite so much as the man vying for his provincial shirt. That leaves Leinster’s current, and future, out-half. Madigan.
As has become the norm when Ireland lose, the debate will unearth a multitude of inter-provincial squabbles and these will rage on no matter who is selected. Just as Sexton briefly silenced half of the dispute, Madigan is capable of doing the same.
Being a Leinster out-half gives him the advantage of familiarity with the centres and the fullback outside him, but combinations aside, it is his running style and distribution that Ireland should crave against a Scottish side whose pack won’t be bullied around the park. His kicking is not yet at an international standard of consistency, but his all-round game can more than paper over that one crack.
The loss to England was not O’Gara’s fault, there was a stage when he seemed to have twisted real momentum Ireland’s way.
There was a time when he could have pulled enough strings in the game to coax this team over the line, but those days, sadly, are gone.