Despite what our learned friends in the print media might say, Ireland have a selection issue at out-half. Jonathan Sexton is unquestioned (except by our unlearned friends in the print media) number one, but is a major doubt for the Scotland game. Working on the assumption that he will be injured, as seems most likely, who should play in his absence is unclear. Ronan O’Gara has been backup since RWC11, but his performance graph has been going south for province and country since then, culminating in his worst performance in a green shirt last Sunday.
Management have, up to now, eschewed the opportunity to give gametime to any of the promising young out-halves currently playing for the provinces, bar Paddy Jackson getting the chance to mow down Fiji for the “Ireland XV”. This is not just us writing with the benefit of hindsight, and those with memories that stretch as far as nine months ago will recall the clamour for Ian Madigan to travel to New Zealand after a season in which he was arguably the standout 10 in the Pro12. Now, they have a serious problem, for the only man they have trusted for ten minute cameos for the last 15 months is no longer a Test-level outhalf, and the incumbent is sick. And that problem is entirely and completely of their own making. Games against Scotland and Italy in last year’s Six Nations, or in a summer tour where ranking points were not an issue and a win was never likely anyway, or against Argentina in November, were tailor-made for limited gametime for the youngsters to ease them into Test level.
Now, the choice is to dump them in at the deep end against Scotland, or persist with a legendary, but no longer effective player – not a choice we would like to have.
It’s been a consistent theme in the last three years that the management corps have declined opportunities to blood new players until absolutely forced to (by injury, typically) e.g. Mike Ross or Sean O’Brien – two players who have made a huge impression at this level. And it’s not like this policy has paid off in silver; Ireland haven’t challenged for the Six Nations since 2009, and were rather easily swatted aside by Wales in the World Cup quarter-finals. Narrow selection policy and short-term goal setting have been the rocks on which the current regime looks to be perishing.
So now we’re in a right old pickle for the game in Murrayfield, with not only a starting place, but a reserve to be chosen from four candidates. Before we go through the options, we are happy to declare upfront that the sole objective is to win the game, and to select the fly-half to give ourselves the best chance of doing that – not with the best chance of winning the 2015 World Cup, or beating New Zealand in 2036. Ireland need a win here, pure and simple:
The Safe Option (Or is it?): Ronan O’Gara. One hundred and twenty-seven caps. Let’s repeat: one hundred and twenty-seven – that’s incredible. O’Gara is the only player to have played in all 14 Six Nations tournaments, and, until recently, retained the apple cheeks and innocent look that so endeared him to Mario Ledesma and Rodrigo Roncero. But is he really so safe? All the caps in the world count for little if the player’s level has fallen over the cliff-edge. Peter Stringer has many more caps than Conor Murray, but it doesn’t make him a safer selection for next week’s match. The test rugby arena is no longer a place for slight 35-year olds fly-halves.
ROG’s last start for Ireland was in the World Cup quarter-final – he didn’t have a good day then, and he has slowed down since. His boot is now Arwel Thomas-esque, as is his tackling. He has experience and self-belief, but unfortunately the old magic has gone. You could apply Enoch Powell’s famous political dictum to him and, for that, we are profoundly disappointed. It’s also worth asking how ROG could hurt the opposition. Scotland’s only dangermen are in their back three – loose kicking to them is likely to put Ireland on the back foot, and it’s questionable as to whether Ireland should be kicking much at all in this game.
On the plus side, his place kicking remains reliable. If pressed into action, at least he is unlikely to play as poorly as against England, and Scotland’s defensive system is probably less likely to put him under the sort of pressure England’s did. But to turn that question on its head, is he the man to best exploit the weaknesses in that defensive system?
The Nordie Option: Paddy Jackson is three months younger than Owen Farrell, and fully two years younger than O’Gara was when he played his first HEC final, but has seven Heineken Cup starts (including a final) to his name, and has been the Chosen One of Ulster rugby for a long time and looked the part in the uncapped match against Fiji. Alas, he has rather wilted in the last two months, and has yet to prove himself a reliable place-kicker, but has mostly impressed this year.
He has often been babysat through matches by Ruan Pienaar and Pwal, but has begun to take on more responsibility, until his current trough of form. Murray has a similar style to Pienaar, and a combination with Jackson might be a good one. Jackson was injured last Saturday and is not expected to play this weekend either, which makes it very difficult to see Kidney turning to him. That said, he has the advantage of being in camp already, which may stand to him.
The Giteau Option: Ian Madigan is the most exciting of the bunch – he has an eye for the tryline, and at his best, moves a backline around with a slickness that has Leinster fans purring. He has yet to come near displacing Johnny Sexton (although we expect he’ll start next season in the 10 shirt), but his distribution and breaking game is ideal for taking on a Scotland side who fall off tackles for fun. England and even a lacklustre Italy punched numerous holes through their pourous midfield. A fast paced running game is the obvious way to beat this Scotland side, rather than kicking to their solid lineout and giving them the opportunity to bring their back three into play.
Madigan has endured an up-and-down season, having been press-ganged into an unfamiliar role at full-back, but has got back to his best form since returning to fly-half. His place kicking stats are also strong this year, at over 80%, and he nailed six from six at the weekend in a winning performance in Cardiff.
Counting against him is a loose kicking game and erratic decision making, while his line-kicking from penalties is inconsistent and a lack of big game experience. He has just one Heineken Cup start at fly-half, against an already-out Montpellier, so test rugby would be a major step up in intesnsity from what he is used to. He has spent less time in camp than Jackson, having been overlooked in November and returned to Leinster promptly this Spring. And we don’t get the feeling Deccie is that big a fan. He has overlooked Madigan for both this year and last year’s Wolfhounds games (for Jackson and Keatley respectively).
You might hear “You can’t throw Madigan into Murrayfield”, but it’s not that strong an argument – the Embra stadium is a library, and Madigan is familiar with it from the Pro12. With serious reservations – there are no perfect solutions to this mess, folks – Madigan would be our choice to start, based on hope that his talent will overcome a lack of experience.
The Help: Ian Keatley has done well when deputising for O’Gara so far this season in Munster, but Rob Penney sees both players every day, and has yet to prefer Keatley for a big game. Piloted Munster to their inevitable five-try win against Racing, but has a tendency to suffer from the yips with his place-kicking. His skillset looks reasonably well equipped to take on Scotland, with a decent breaking game, and strong defensive credentials, but does he have enough class for test rugby? Firm outsider, but he is the only one of the youngsters with Test starts on his CV (albeit against the USA and Canada).
The Ray Lewis Option: Johnny Sexton may have damaged his hamstring on Sunday, but maybe he should consult Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis – the veteran tore his triceps in October (normal recovery time: 6 months) but was back in 10 weeks to lead his team to the Superbowl. Bill Simmons of Grantland (think Conor George, except American, likeable, respected, intelligent, knowledgeable, well-spoken, a good writer and with good teeth) called him a cheat for it – but if Lewis could sort Sexton out with some deer antler spray, he might be back for Murrayfield. And it’s not like the IRB are serious about PEDs, so he’d probably get away with it too.
So which way is it going to go? We expect Deccie to stick with ROG, and while Jackson would probably be Decie’s preferred reserve, his injury just might cost him that chance, with the in-form Madigan best placed to be the beneficiary. Undoubtedly, this weekend’s round of Pro12 games represent something of a beauty parade, and with Leinster at home to Treviso, Madigan has a good opportunity to press his case. Can he ensure he doesn’t try to do too much on his own?
Each of the four contenders comes with a hazard warning, but given the weakness of the Scottish midfield, we have a preference for Madigan to start with the insurance policy of ROG on the bench. We know Kidney to be a conservative, but faced with deteriorating performances from the likes of Stringer, O’Leary and Fitzgerald in the past, he has shown an ability to make surprising, seemingly-out-of-nowhere, ruthless decisions. Could this be one such occasion? Probably not. Deccie will most likely stick his chips on ROG to have just enough wiles to sneak a win against pretty ordinary opposition, so long as he knows he has Sexton to return for the more arduous French game.
Whatever fly-half Kidney chooses, we’d like to see a joined-up selection that shows an intent to hurt Scotland, not merely to scrape by. With that in mind, his choice of loosehead – between Tom Court and David Kilcoyne – is also important. Scotland’s scrum is no better than average, and Court is the more destructive scrummager of the two. If Ireland do pick ROG – as we expect them to – they should look to attack the Scottish scrum and milk it for three pointers, giving ROG the platform to work the scoreboard. If, on l’autre hand, Kidney were to take a risk on Madigan, David Kilcoyne’s energy and pace in the loose would dovetail best, putting an emphasis on playing the game at a high tempo. Anyone care to wager against ROG and Kilcoyne starting?