The Irish Debate: Ronan O'Gara vs. Jonathan Sexton

James MortimerAnalyst IFebruary 24, 2010

DUBLIN, IRELAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Jonathan Sexton of Ireland kicks a penalty during the Guinness Series 2009 match between Ireland and South Africa at Croke Park on November 28, 2009 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Declan Kidney has named Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton to take on England in Ireland’s visit to Twickenham this weekend.  Munster out half Ronan O’Gara was the only man to be dropped as such, with some believing he has been made a scapegoat for their French loss.

Geordan Murphy and Rory Best come into the Irish side, but replace injured Rob Kearney and banned Jerry Flannery respectively.  Donncha O’Callaghan also comes into the side, but it is to resume his partnership with his Munster second row partner Paul O’Connell.

It raises the interesting debate as to who is the best No. 10 for Ireland.

Many feel that O’Gara is not the man to take the Irish forward, either in this championship or beyond to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

His resume cannot be doubted.

He is the record point’s scorer for Ireland and Munster, the record point’s scorer in the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations, and rated as one of the most consistent and reliable number tens the game has ever seen.

His big game temperament cannot be questioned either.

He played a key role in Munster’s Heineken Cup successes.  He was prominent in their 2006 win, kicking 13 points in their first European championship victory over Biarritz in Cardiff.  And two years later captained Munster to defeat the London Wasps (then reigning champions) in the pool stages, before kicking 11 points as the Irish giants beat Toulouse to win their second Heineken Cup.

Internationally he has a plethora of achievements as well. 

Who can forget his back-to-back man of the match performances against the Springboks and Argentineans in 2004, when he scored all of his countries points in both games?

And, to go along with his four Triple Crowns, it was he who struck the telling drop goal in the dying minutes to secure Ireland their first Six Nations title and the Grand Slam.

But his predicament is similar to Jonny Wilkinson, who also finds himself the victim of numerous questions and doubts as to his ability at the top level.

O’Gara has never been doubted for his ability as a kicker, either in general play or from the kicking tee (as with Wilkinson), but like his English counterpart, is often criticised for his perceived lack of ability as a Dan Carter type running playmaker.

At least Wilkinson can point to his fearless defence, another area where O’Gara can be found wanting.

However, while Wilkinson has challengers in Toby Flood and Charlie Hodgson, they are not in such imperious form that his position is under threat.  He also has a coach who has an intimate relationship with him, having been the two key figures in an England from a bygone age that ruled the world.

O’Gara does not have that luxury.

First, he is coached by a seemingly perceptive and canny coach who—along with the national union—has a firm view and set of principles for Ireland’s rugby future and success.  This is not to say that Martin Johnson does not, but rather that Kidney and his Irish vision is far more transparent.

Secondly, the one province to challenge Munster, their neighbours to the North East in the form of current Heineken Cup champions Leinster, has a young prodigy in the form of Jonathan Sexton.

Sexton is seen as O’Gara’s heir apparent.

He seems to be the modern version of his Munster rival.  Sexton is capable with his boot, but has the added dimension of being a more attacking number ten.

He, too, has started notching his own records.  While he has played over 50 times for his province, it was last season he truly came to prominence. 

Felipe Contempomi went down with an injury, which led to the young St Mary’s College product coming on to play a part in last year’s Heineken Cup semi final with Munster.  This saw him start against Leicester in the final, in which he kicked the winning penalty as well as a huge drop goal.

His last test start was against the Springboks in 2009, where he kicked all of Ireland’s 15 points en-route to a five point win over the Tri and World champions.

He was impeccable in his last Leinster match, against Scarlets in last weekend’s Magners League match, kicking with radar precision and scoring a late try.

Kidney played down any views that O’Gara’s time was coming to an end.

"We're blessed with two out-halves, one with huge experience, the other up and coming," said Kidney.

"I thought it was opportune to give Jon a go this time."

O’Gara has played brilliantly of late for Munster, being their guiding hand in what has been a domineering return to form over recent months for the two-time champions.

But what happens from here is hard to tell, as Sexton was always going to be given a test start in the tournament.  If not for “demoting” O’Gara, to ensure that the young Leinster number ten continues to develop by being exposed in the test arena.

Surely though O’Gara will be watching nervously, although he has been said to have applauded the rise of Sexton, to challenge him in a position where there have been no competitors in the past.

A decision on who is first choice though must be made soon, if Ireland are to impact and grow in the future.  The World Cup in 2011 in crucial, for not only do Ireland need to make an impact, but desperately need to atone for their Annus horribilis at the 2007 tournament.