ROY KEANE USED to say that he always knew that when the end came, it wouldn’t be pretty.
And so it was as Declan Kidney swung the axe and almost certainly ended the test career of Ireland’s most capped player; the divisive, cantankerous, chippy, bullishly self-confident but unquestionably brilliant Ronan O’Gara.
Sport can be cruel in many ways, and watching one of Ireland’s most respected players of all time decline to such an abject level over the last two weeks has not made for pleasant viewing. It has been obvious for some time that ROG has been in decline, and while his street team of media apologists would have you believe the opposite, this day has been looming since the middle of last season. We have a few observations on the matter:
1. On rugby terms, it’s the right decision. Yes, it’s awful for ROG personally to have it end like this: it’s sad that his final act of any significance was a loopy, harebrained crossfield kick that ultimately consigned Ireland to a sorry defeat in Murrayfield. But there’s no room for sentiment on this one. It would have been the right decision to bring Madigan into the fold at the start of the Six Nations, and it’s still the right decision now. To jettison ROG mid-tournament looks awful, but the (Kidney) clock cannot be turned back. Decisions can only be made for the next game, not the last, so it’s the right decision, however awfully it has been made.
It was, though, the wrong decision to keep him in the 23 since the summer, and for that Kidney should be roundly castigated. The whole situation is a mess of the coach’s making, succession planning at its absolute worst. The failure to grasp before now that O’Gara was no longer a test player amounts to a costly blunder.
2. ROG should have retired after the 2011 loss to Wales. The danger of playing on too long is that you sully your legacy. There will be articles about the end of the ROG era this week, but the ROG era ended with the 2011 World Cup. His noteworthy contributions to test matches since that dismal quarter-final are… what exactly? He has not started a game in that time, while Sexton has authoritatively claimed ownership of the shirt. His tenacity and self-belief are admirable, but it has tipped over into a slightly sad sight over the last two series, when it has been clear he’s no longer capable at this level. It was the right time to go, and he should have done it. For all those saying ROG deserves to go out on his own terms; well that was his chance and he turned it down.
3. Kidney – the man for 2015. Or so he’d have you think. Declan Kidney’s selection policy has swung from archly conservative to ‘throwing in ver yoof’. It’s hard not to be a touch cynical and see it has him positioning himself as a coach with an eye on the 2015 world cup, presiding over a young team. A transitional coach, if you will. It’s like a switch has been flicked. First the change of captaincy, now he’s thrown ROG over the side of his sinking ship to try and keep it afloat. While in and of itself it’s the right decision (see number one above) it’s a bit hard to stomach the manner in which Deccie has done business.
4. Madigan is there on merit. While all the airspace will be taken up by ROG, it shouldn’t be forgotten that his replacement deserves his place in the squad. He picked up rave reviews for his performance in the un-televised win over the Dragons on Friday night, where he kicked three from four from out wide, and continues a hot streak of form. He is the form 10 in the country and looks to have the stuff for test rugby, albeit with a weak kicking game from hand. It’s appeared up to now that he is not the fly-half Kidney is looking for, but his form must count for something. He deserves his chance, at least off the bench.
5. Remember the good times. Forget the awful cross-kick and the 10m kicks to touch, and remember ROG as he deserves to be remembered. The cheeky try against South Africa. The cross-field kick to Shaggy. The try in the corner in Croker against France. Converting Shaggy’s try in Twickenham to make it a four point game. Too many penalties and conversions to mention. We have also heard, but require confirmation, that he once scored a drop goal of some importance.
6. The Cork Con Mafia can go for a lie down. If ROG has been one of the greatest ever Irish internationals, he has also been one of the most protected, with an army of media campaigners in place to avoid reference to his bad performances, and remind us of the failings of his rivals. Right up to this week they were still at it. The poor fellows must be exhausted, as their task has taken on Sisyphean proportions in recent months. Take a lie down, chaps, and think of Peter O’Mahony.