Ronan O’Gara: Decision made: Shut up and kick the penalty Rog

Ronan O’Gara: Decision made: Shut up and kick the penalty Rog
Munster’s Ronan O’Gara, left, and captain Paul O’Connell celebrate after victory over Harlequins in 2013. O’Connell always delivered confidence in the kicker and maybe that’s what JJ Hanrahan needed last Saturday, says Ronan O’Gara. Picture: Brendan Moran

We were up in the wildish Scottish yonder last Saturday when this kerfuffle at Saracens broke out.

Not the handbags on the sideline, rather the second-guessing of Munster’s decision to opt against kicking for the losing bonus point late in the day.

By first thing Sunday, it had developed into a fully-bloated discussion, like the ones we would have had ourselves with Munster before. And then, as now, there was always the Henry Hindsight sighing ‘if ye’d listened to me’.

Losing bonus points often amount to wisdom postponed. As time goes by, they often turn out to be really savvy judgments. In 2008 down in Clermont we got a proper trimming from Les Jaunards in the Heineken Cup.

They were 23-6 up at one stage with Brock James in the pivot — the same ten who started for La Rochelle last Saturday in Glasgow at 38, ironically.

If you think the penalty to get us to 26-19 and the losing bonus point is an abiding memory, you’re wrong. My mother would have kicked it.

Their wing forward did an (accidental) number on my ear that required 27 stitches. When I came back on, Rua Tipoki was staring agog at me and said later how he grasped at that moment the meaning of Munster rugby to us all.

It changed our relationship and his with Munster forever. Either way, the LBP was a critical piece of progress that afternoon in France, and it might have been the same last Saturday for Munster at the home of the European champions — especially when they had let two points slip at home to Racing 92.

To say the decision to go down the line instead of opt for a JJ Hanrahan penalty attempt was a brain fart is too facile.

We could attempt to put ourselves in that moment and tease out the thought process, but you cannot replicate these pressure pinches in the abstract, and that is one of the keys here.

I’m hazarding a guess here that Munster players still thought they could pinch the win — ie, the try, conversion and win the kick-off to set up a possible drop goal attempt. It’s not like Munster hasn’t pulled it off before. But you would have to ask: Doesn’t the reverse still make more sense? Take the three, secure the bonus point and then try to recover possession and go for the winning seven points.

So there’s no real way of escaping the fact it was a costly error. The minimum you must secure is a bonus point. 15-9 is a very different scoreline in so many ways.

Besides, where would Munster have got the idea they were going to cross for a try when they’d scarcely looked like doing so in the previous 70 minutes?

Here’s the thing though. Leading this discussion, in any context, should be the captain and the kicker. It’s no reflection on JJ Hanrahan or CJ Stander to say one is an occasional kicker, the other a stand-in captain on the day (with Peter O’Mahony not starting).

Ronan O’Gara: Decision made: Shut up and kick the penalty Rog

These pressure points might only hit once or twice a season, but you’ve got to nail them. JJ had missed a key penalty at 6-3 within what we’d term ‘the arc’, that horseshoe 15 metres in from each touchline. Perhaps that was playing on his mind a little.

These are the ones a kicker is expecting to make, inside the red zone. That doesn’t make the late penalty choice easier for JJ — it makes it more difficult.

Should I take the bull by the horns and demand the kick here?

Well if he felt strongly enough about it, confident enough, then yes, he should have. And if that means a stand-off with the captain, then let there be a stand-off. And if you are that kicker, then let the others literally grab the ball off the tee.

Clearly, you defer to the team leader but the good captain has already convinced his kicker that it’s going over before he even kicks it.

‘We’ll take the three’, Paul O’Connell used say to me in a manner that assured and convinced me he was certain this was a done deal already.

Mick Galwey and Paulie had different styles of leadership but they were equally effective from my point of view. You felt empowered and trusted every time.

Gaillimh would have the positive chat, the right choice of words, that put you in the right space mentally, while Paulie had the smarts to judge perfectly the prevailing mood of his kicker.

If I’d missed the previous one, there was never any debate, which might only sow further doubt. It was a straight ‘Rog you’re kicking this’.

Mind made up. That’s it.

If there’s a ‘How do you feel Rog?’, it’s weak leadership by him and weak ownership of a core duty role by me.

The key attributes of a good leader are words and deeds. By giving me the ball and saying ‘we’ll take the three’, Paul O’Connell was delivering an implicit act of confidence right there.

Ronan O’Gara: Decision made: Shut up and kick the penalty Rog

Maybe that’s what Hanrahan needed, but I am not in his headspace.

He has missed that important penalty earlier, but if a kicker pays the rent only on the basis of kicking penalties when his tail is up, he’ll be homeless pretty soon.

Paulie would have handed that ball thinking ‘right this is 15-9, how will we recover the restart?’.

What people weren’t commenting on in the wake of Saturday’s game was whether JJ’s mind had fully emptied the hangover from that drop goal against Racing.

Because JJ knows that on his worst day in training, he doesn’t strike a drop goal that poorly, and that gnaws away for a while. It had to have an effect on him at peak time.

The relationship between kicker and captain is fundamental in rugby. What does act of leadership look like at Allianz Park last Saturday? For me it’s CJ, without consulting, pointing at the posts. If JJ’s not ready or injured, it’s ‘take the three, Rory (Scannell)’.

Either way, if CJ is demonstratively making the decision, it is removes JJ from the process. He only has to follow orders then. That happened many times for me as a player.

You had two strong strong personalities, Paulie and I, and a few psychological mind games going on when it came to these decisions — my area of expertise versus his captaincy.

He has no regard for what I was thinking and rightly so — his process is ‘a losing bonus point is best for the team here, we’ll take the three, Rog’.

Actually, it wasn’t that polite. More ‘kick the effing penalty and shut up’.

Saracens in no position to talk about values

I’m all for a zero-tolerance approach to violence or thuggery on a rugby field, but I’m hardly the only one who feels the reaction to the handbags at Saracens was a little over the top?

Those who thought it was unsavoury obviously don’t go to many GAA matches around the country!

I found it hard to keep a straight face when I read Mark McCall tut-tutting the ‘horrible’ comments of the Munster team doctor. Let he without sin etc etc ...

Ronan O’Gara: Decision made: Shut up and kick the penalty Rog

This coming from a club whose interpretation of rugby values and the meaning of salary cap left more than a little to be desired.

So let’s not be getting too wound up over someone suffering a mild bout of sledging from a doctor. Saracens didn’t get to the summit of Europe by being that sensitive, surely?

Of greater import was the fact that it was a bit of an off-colour Saracens performance. That will rankle with Munster, because Saracens were there for the taking.

Now it all comes down now to Sunday, January 12 in Paris for Munster. When you have Donncha Ryan playing against Munster, you know Racing’s forwards are going to perform, so it’s a big ask for Johann van Graan’s players.

But it’s Munster’s season on the line, so they have to deliver a win.

In a weird way, I suspect going to Thomond Park would have excited the Racing 92 players more than playing at home because Thomond is a big European cathedral of rugby. They didn’t kill Munster off that day, and should have.

They might regret that.

Result is true arbiter of on-pitch kicking calls

In relation to these on-pitch decisions I refer to elsewhere, the only true arbiter is the result. Munster will feel they have let three points slip in their Champions Cup pool, but they are not alone.

La Rochelle had a similar situation at home to Glasgow. These things are never black and white. There is a different feeling for every game. If you have momentum, it is good to go for the corner.

But not always. Occasionally, even with momentum, it is advisable to put yourself more than a score (or two scores) in front and take the three points.

We’ve been caught this season, being 13 points up against Stade Francais in the Top 14 and going to the corner. We should have taken the three points to make it a three-score match.

When we didn’t, we were hanging on at the end at home. In fact, Jules Plisson — who has joined us since — missed a kick to draw the game.

It was nice to partly put to bed that 27-24 home defeat to Glasgow at their place last Saturday.

How much it means in terms of momentum will be determined this Sunday when we face Bordeaux-Begles in our Top 14 local derby.

There may be a perception out there that we’ve been well off this campaign. I think it’s important to stress that we haven’t rolled over once, which is quite an un-French thing to do.

What was really positive again at Scotstoun was that we didn’t give up anything soft.

If we can preserve that and improve our set-piece, we’ll rattle a few cages.

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