Ronan O'Gara: I was no Beauden Barrett or Dan Carter, so…

Get your compass readings and timepieces out. We are about to return to one of the most vexed items in this increasingly scrambled head of mine, writes Ronan O’Gara

RED LETTER DAY: Ronan O’Gara rates the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Leinster in Lansdowne Road as ‘the most fundamentally important win of my Munster career’.  	Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
RED LETTER DAY: Ronan O’Gara rates the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Leinster in Lansdowne Road as ‘the most fundamentally important win of my Munster career’. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Where before you could set your watch by what I was doing and thinking, now thoughts, both splendid and spurious, have a veritable prairie to run amok in. How are the players coping? Is this the time for me to change gear and approach as a coach?

Should I drive on now and finish my badges? How soon before the kids are actually out of control without school?

And who is going to lead the resurgence of the spiral kick, one of the most potent if criminally under-employed weapons in 15-man rugby?

In recent weeks it’s been tapping on my temple like a woodpecker. With the introduction of the new 50:22 rule (though I think it should be 40:22), coaches may begin to sprinkle their backline with more proficient kickers. 

The rule allows Team ‘A’ to have the resultant lineout if they kick from the hand from inside their own half and find touch with a bounce inside Team ‘B’s 22.

The idea being that opposition will commit more players to deeper postings, therefore softening up their frontline defence and allowing more space.

But is there the kicking skillset there to take advantage of same? Kicking on the run is a key weapon nowadays, which is why England probably have an edge on most in the way they stack their backline with proficient kickers.

From Ford to Farrell to Elliot Daly to Slade.

The spiral kick is the golden standard for those who favour putting boot to ball. It’s harder to execute under pressure for a lot of players but once you nail it technically, it’s potency is self-evident.

The end-over-end kick is in the locker of most good kickers, and it’s their go-to, because the risk of messing up is relatively low. But if you have the skillset for a spiral, it is a far more accurate and rewarding weapon to have.

Think of the hands of a clock. If you are holding the ball on its side, from east to west, that’s three and nine o’clock.

The correct clock position to execute a spiral is five and 11 o’clock, your right hand at five and your left hand holding the upper end of the ball at 11 o’clock. 

However, the ‘Adidas’ European Cup ball (most often sighted in the south of France) had such a sweet spot that you would get away with four and 10 o’clock. 

You position it outside the middle of your chest onto your kicking side to give yourself room to swing through the ball, and finish the boot in the punt position, ie toe pointing towards the ground, dispatching it in a torpedo motion.

Your left shoulder is your reference point (for a right-footer). You do not want that all over the place. If you lose that shape, you can spray it all over the place. Think golf and body position at the point of impact.

If it’s a drilled spiral, the one thing that changes is your eyeline and head lift. Kicking it as far as you can raises your eyes, i.e., your head, higher. 

That delivers a longer follow through. A shorter kick means you lower your finishing position.

Either way, a well-executed spiral delivers consistent forward propulsion, critical in northern hemisphere rugby where more than half the season is played on a wet surface.

Why is it so effective? Well for opposition 15s, a well-executed spiral is nigh undefendable. No matter if you had Usain Bolt playing at full-back, the speed of the kick, its trajectory, is going to beat him to the sideline if he is starting from around the goalposts. End-over-ending it, the hang time is probably two seconds more. If the new 50:22 rules are ratified for the world game, it’s going to be the difference between possession and not.

However bad a day I was having on the pitch with Munster or Ireland, it was something reliable, but more importantly, potent to go back to every time. 

I didn’t have the blinding speed or the sidestep to score a try out of nothing, like a Beauden Barrett or a Quade Cooper.

But there is no value you can put on a pack of forwards surfacing from a ruck or maul and seeing the ball 50 yards down the field with the opposition in retreat. 

That crushed the life out of more opponents than I can remember but it’s a card that is still so underplayed in the modern game. Is it not cool enough? Is it an admission that, on occasion, you must be pragmatic? It remains a core rugby philosophy for me. 

In the opposition 22, you are 70 yards from your own line and you can now have the licence to ramp things up and take risks.

The alternative, beloved of some ‘progressive, modern’ coaches, is playing the game 40 yards from your line where a penalty is in three-points-to-the-opposition territory. That just saps energy from your own crew.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Munster’s 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final win over Leinster at Lansdowne Road. Ask any one of the Munster pack about the efficacy of a spiral kick. 

There was a universal understanding of the psychological importance of killing opposition momentum, suffocating their ambition, giving them no cause for hope and no reason to get energetic.

That day, 14 years ago, was THE most fundamentally important win of my Munster career. One of the greatest days, unbelievable to behold and to reflect on at every opportunity. 

I’m not a huge nostalgia buff but it’s worth pausing to say that was the most pressure I’ve ever felt going into a rugby game. The thought of losing everything against that opposition in particular.

Again, from this distance, it underlines a) the breadth of leaders on that Munster team and b) the exampla gratis of the incredible bond between a team and its supporters. 

There was some connection there between team and terrace. Don’t ask me to explain, perhaps it’s societal, but today’s Thomond Park crowd are nothing like as ferocious and primal as they were then.

I don’t have a definitive reason, but it’s an irrefutable fact.

My routine was I came out of the dressing room area and ran to the goalpost farthest away from me on the side of the pitch we were warming up. I’d put my kicking tee up on top of the post padding, and do a lap of the 22.

And you took a first glance around you — not a full stare — but it was enough to elicit a: ‘Oh My good God, look what’s here today an hour before kick-off’. It bestows an incredible onus on you to perform for those people, hitting you square between the eyebrows.

It was not the fear of losing to Leinster as much as it was the fear of letting down all those good red people.

Europe hadn’t been conquered and we were beyond desperate to change that.

That was the game, the more difficult threshold to cross even though the final was yet to come, but this was Leinster, who were coming like a train, in Lansdowne Road, and we feared what might happen after if we lost.

The defeat changed everything — including the trajectory of Leinster rugby, which concluded that this could never ever happen again.

They were coming off the win in Toulouse, and we were being asked: Are Munster lacking the quality to take the final step? We had a different mindset walking down the tunnel in the Millennium Stadium for the final against Biarritz. Composed.

All Paulie was saying was: “We’ve got to play, boys.”

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