Ronan O'Gara: Why is that wonky ball going anywhere except where it’s told?

RONAN OGARA: Ronan O'Gara: Why is that wonky ball going anywhere except where it’s told?
JJ Hanrahan

If JJ Hanrahan is looking for anyone to cuddle him up and tell him a bedtime story, he’s kidding himself. The Munster ten should have dropped that goal to secure an unlikely win against Racing 92 last Saturday (pictured below), but you know what? Daybreak broke on Sunday morning, and again Monday.

We’ve all been there. He was so rushed getting the ball down, he snatched at it. They say keep your head down, but it’s nothing to do with your head. It’s your eye and the ball, that joint motion. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

I used do this drill where I always tried to over-accelerate the drop goal process in training, so you were getting the ball as rapid as possible and the moment you’d kicked one, you were onto the next one. What did that do? I think it trained me to understand real-time rhythms.

It didn’t always work but I remember the last minute one in the Six Nations against Italy in Rome in 2011, it felt like I had all the time in the world. This is the thing about kicking. It comes so easy one day, and then the next time it’s ‘why is that wonky ball going anywhere except where it’s told?’ It’s not unlike golf. But that’s the secret of good repetition, and JJ understands what that means — it means your bad days come around maybe once out of ten games. You have fewer mares and more consistent afternoons.

I could fake excuses about him being too straight in front of goal, and too near, and having to wait a phase or two too long, and there’s merit in all that. But it changes nothing. For a right-footed kicker, the ideal zone for a drop goal is just left of the posts, between the 15m line and the near post. You are getting ball from your nine on the inside and stepping out, so it’s all the same motion. Your chest is naturally at the posts that way. You take the pass and bang. Whereas on the ‘other’ side, right of the posts for a right-footed kicker, you have to catch, step back and then kick. Three different moves and no sequence.

The trouble for JJ and Munster is that the Racing draw at home could prove a season-changing moment. They’ve got a fair few plaudits after the comeback but go through the video and they will be very relieved that Racing 92 didn’t bring the killer instinct with them because they were all over Munster but didn’t put them away.

From a playmaker point of view, how lovely was it to see Finn Russell do his stuff? You see glimpses from him on occasions that don’t always add up to a whole pile, but this performance at Thomond Park ticked all the important markers. The thing is, he’s 27, the same age as JJ Hanrahan, with his best four years ahead of him.

That’s the peak age for a ten, and by the next World Cup in France, he could be among the best tens in the world. Game time, especially in big ones, is absolutely crucial because you see more and more pictures. He is at a club that suits him, the home pitch guarantees a dry ball to showcase his skills every time. And let’s be fair, in Juan Imhoff, Teddy Thomas and Zebo, it’s not as if he has duds on the wing. And Vakatawa can rip out a pass too. Lions out-half in South Africa in two years’ time?

An interesting proposition.

Yes, history will be kind to Joe Schmidt but...

Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt walks through the crowd after the World Cup quarter-final exit in Tokyo last month. Picture: Inpho/Dan Sheridan
Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt walks through the crowd after the World Cup quarter-final exit in Tokyo last month. Picture: Inpho/Dan Sheridan

Will Irish rugby be kind to the Joe Schmidt era? The full round of exit interviews is nigh complete now, the book written too. Any reasonable statistical analysis of Joe’s tenure with the national team could only confer on him the title of Ireland’s most successful head coach. But that seems to be a secondary consideration to the legacy question: Did he leave Irish rugby in a better state? That’s where the conversation diverges into several different versions of ‘Well that depends…’

If you are from Leinster, especially the D4 area of the capital, they won’t have a word said against Joe. He could do no wrong. He did little wrong. He won six trophies in four seasons, including two Heineken Cups and had an unprecedented win rate in Europe of 85%. He took over the national side in 2013, was the first coach to beat New Zealand, and the first to win a test series in Australia. These are all milestones in their own right, but…

Why is there a but at the end of all that?.

Well partly because on the world stage nothing has really changed for Ireland. We had a poor 2015 World Cup and a poorer one again last month. The World Cup is the world stage. And that will rankle with Joe more than anyone.

If we were writing this a year ago, the idea that Joe’s legacy was even up for debate would have been laughed out of court. And rightly so. We had just beaten the All Blacks, for the second time under Schmidt, and were the No 1 ranked side in the world on merit. I was in the ground that evening and the view from the mountain top was wonderful. But in terms of performance and results, there’s been an almighty tumble since. There is no point whatsoever being No 1 in the world 12 months before a World Cup.

Do you want to revisit Japan? No, me neither. If our continuing failures on the world stage only fuel my desire to do something about it in the future, as an Irish rugby person, this World Cup was a hugely difficult and underwhelming experience.

People ask me: well, what would you do differently? Going into the new World Cup cycle, there must be an emphasis on getting a consistent offload game going again. Ireland has been so ruck-focused in recent years that they cannot play the ball out of the tackle.

It’s a balance thing. England’s offload game in Japan was impressive. It had been worked on. Interestingly though, in La Rochelle’s Heineken Cup game against Exeter, we attempted 20 offloads, and half were inaccurate. Exeter attempted. So who’s right here? The club game or the national team? I think the balance is somewhere in between, and that’s where I’d like Ireland’s game to go. We are not France, we have our own rugby DNA, but undoubtedly it requires expansion in terms of continuity.

France’s rugby philosophy is all about, stay upright, beat your and get them almost playing around his back. That’s sexy rugby. We were brought up where you have to get beyond your man in the tackle and then play it out – that’s a good offload. The far end of the spectrum is Fiji. Watching those lads at the World Cup is like watching X-rated stuff. They’ve brought it to a whole new level.

But there was a hint of something different about Munster last Saturday, aspects of their game I wouldn’t have noticed over the last 18 months. Is that all good? It depends how the coach measures it. If the offloading game is discouraged you won’t see much of it, but evidently it’s something that is being encouraged. The traditional game plan has only got Munster so far.

It’s not like rugby has to be that complicated. Different gameplans can be hatched, different defensive strategies too, but ultimately with the ball you play off nine, ten or twelve. Joe liked his ‘special’ plays. But it’s not like studying Chemistry and being asked to sit a Geography paper.

I remember Toulon in their pomp, they had the good fortune of the stars aligning, with an array of world-class talents in their pomp. Ireland has had (still has) a core of serial winners from Leinster but the Irish system has not really facilitated those who stir a little magic into the potion. It’s not like the Irish players haven’t the skillset to extend themselves. As an Irish fan, I look at Dan Leavy and think, with his blend of abilities, there’s more there once he returns from that horrible knee injury.

And he’s only one example.

Tell me if you think I’m mad…

Before you send for folk in white coats with the padded van, hear me out.

It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that La Rochelle would have won at Sale last Sunday if we’d managed to stay 15 v 15 for the full game. If I can somehow find a positive out of a second Heineken Cup loss where we had a red card, two yellows and 16 penalties against us, I think we are turning that mythical corner. Don’t laugh.

When our hooker Pierre Bourgarit was sent off, there seemed to be a bit of a rallying call amongst the rest of the group. They fronted up. I know how strange it looks when I say that a ten-point defeat away to Sale with their returning World Cup stars was okay in a certain context. But Jonno Gibbes and I were in agreement in an oddly upbeat way: this could be a turning point in our season — if we bag the win tomorrow in the Top 14 at home to Castres. That is now non-negotiable. We are looking for a performance, but it’s one of those times where a win is more important than anything else. We have Jules Plisson in at ten from Stade Francais, stirring the mix at out-half with Ahaia West and Brock James.

It’s been a fairly full-on week. On Wednesday, Bourgarit was suspended for six weeks, the ban halved from 12 weeks for the fact there were no aggravating factors, he pled guilty, and his disciplinary track record was good. I am not trying to play cute here. If Pierre made contact with the eyes of the Sale player, he would and should have been banned for six months. There is no place in rugby for that. But he didn’t.

Before you send for folk in white coats with the padded van, hear me out.

It pays to shift your ass at a World Cup

Semi Radradra
Semi Radradra

Pieter-Steph du Toit may have been player of the World Cup, but unquestionably Semi Radradra was the best player in the pool stages. Bordeaux have himself and Seta Tamanivalu in the centres, which is some combination. Now Bristol have stumped up big cash to bring Radradra to the Premiership next season. It’s an interesting watershed for rugby as he is reputedly set to become the first £1million player. It pays to shift your ass at a World Cup!

Semi's a game-changer. Another of that ilk, Leone Nakawara may be on the move too out of Racing 92, though in somewhat different circumstances. There’s a tribunal pending on his late return to his club from the World Cup and we await the fallout from same. From Racing’s point of view, the squad has delivered two big European performances without him and one or two others. They are putting their trust in the dressing room and respecting the team culture.

Of course, it’s not like Leone will be short of suitors if he leaves. That is the law of the jungle. Sale are apparently interested. Having seen them last Sunday, Nakawara would be some addition because they have a lot of strong, direct runners which he would complement. With the ‘X Factor’ he’d bring, it could be incredibly potent.

But there’s no deal just yet… Pieter-Steph du Toit may have been player of the World Cup, but unquestionably Semi Radradra was the best player in the pool stages. Bordeaux have himself and Seta Tamanivalu in the centres, which is some combination. Now Bristol have stumped up big cash to bring Radradra to the Premiership next season. It’s an interesting watershed for rugby as he is reputedly set to become the first £1million player.

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