RONAN O'GARA: Racing certainties? There ain’t no such thing

Leinster may be the best side in Europe over the course of the season, but the notion that they are invincible ignores those human traits — thoroughbreds or not, says Ronan O’Gara.

At the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris, Aidan O’Brien and I got wrapped up in a conversation about thoroughbreds.

Aidan knows a thing or two about thoroughbreds, but they guarantee nothing, he says. Anything with a heart and a brain is susceptible to the vagaries of mood. These are not robots.

The way he sees it, there are three different levels: Fantastic, goodish and plain just not feeling it on the day. Then, stir into that cocktail the human emotions of the jockey. How good is that ‘sure thing’ now?

Apply that emotional equation across 23 different people on a rugby team. Leinster may be the best side in Europe over the course of the season, but the notion that they are invincible ignores those human traits — thoroughbreds or not.

At the Ernest Wallon on Sunday, the rest of Europe thought they spotted a small chink in Leinster. Toulouse went at them from the off, were strong in the carry, and showed great intensity. They also gave a lie to the notion that Top 14 sides do not possess the fitness to go 80 minutes plus. French sides are not supposed to rally in the last quarter, never mind go the length of the field off an intercept to score a match-winning try. There is a considerable difference watching Leinster being challenged and Leinster being unable to close the deal when it’s on the table.

We’ve rarely seen that in the last couple of season. It’s not that Leo Cullen’s players were bad. They were quite good, just not good enough. The way Aidan O’Brien sees it, thoroughbreds have average days too. What buttons you push can often be the difference. Does a disappointment like Toulouse galvanise them to push on again? Or does it sow a small seed of doubt?

As thoroughbreds go, they operate on a different plateau.

New Zealand are there for a very good reason: They are going for a third World Cup in a row. There are very good reasons to speak of them in isolated excellence. They are the market leaders in the sport, globally.

But even they are not sure things in 2019.

The IRFU had the good sense to post realistic goals in the strategy document they published this week. The target of two World Cup semi-finals in the next five years is appropriate, because it’s something we have yet to achieve with the national team. Making the last four in Japan will break new ground for Irish rugby. I remember back in 2003 there wasn’t even a mention of being World Cup contenders. We are the greatest nation in the world to get carried away, to go from zero to hero. There has to be some block-building to establish ourselves as credible contenders and we’re nearly there in that regard.

When Joe Schmidt arrived at Leinster, expectations were considerably more modest than they are now. The likes of Jordan Larmour and James Ryan have come through in a system that delivers a consistent diet of success and trophies. Joe has helped create that culture, hence he understands it. I have no inkling whatsoever what he plans to do after the next World Cup, but if he leaves, it creates an interesting situation. There is no coach in the Irish system ready to bring those levels of expectation to the set-up, but all is not lost.

There seems to be a presumption in some quarters that Joe is packed and ready to go back and get himself in line for the All Blacks job. That might be flawed thinking, because it presupposes that his life here isn’t good enough to ensure he stays put. Things are going well for Joe in Ireland and to leave what he has framed is a massive call. He’ll probably have to get in line in New Zealand. The All Blacks tend to promote from within the system. They have faith in that and it won’t change.

Joe and his Irish players will get an informative, up-close look at New Zealand in three weeks’ time. The All Blacks have their vulnerabilities too, just like Leinster or any other champion team. When flanker Sam Cane broke his neck recently, Steve Hansen and his management team were forced to reach out to Matt Todd, who is based in Japan, for the tour to the northern hemisphere. Heretofore, the All Blacks, similar to Ireland, have been hard and fast to the rule that if you leave the domestic programme, you’re out of contention.

However, New Zealand rugby has its own financial pressures and being so isolated means the ability to retain its top players in the system has become harder and harder. And this is the All Blacks! The Todd exemption is something New Zealand and other countries may have to re-examine going forward.

Will Conor Murray be ready to face New Zealand on November 17? Contrary to what he intimated this week, my gut instinct is that he will play. He’s been going pretty much full on in training and next week he will ramp that up further. If he’s ready, he will look to start.

Murray is a no-drama sort of fella. He’s not the sort to be creating a storyline about himself. He’s a thoroughbred Aidan O’Brien would love to have in the yard. A simple, straight shooter. One who doesn’t have to force what comes naturally.

That’s as much about his personality as his ability.

Whether it be Munster or Ireland, the team is more rounded when he’s on the pitch. I was in Thomond Park last Saturday for the Gloucester game. The surface was beautiful, the day perfect and, yet, Munster had one of those not-at-it afternoons. They felt the result was never in doubt and consequently the performance lacked accuracy. It was disappointing. Even in the opening three quarters, when they dominated, they never hit their rhythm. The tries were sprinkled with errors in the build-up. When Cipriani was red-carded, Munster felt it was game over.

For all the hammerings Danny gets, the degree of composure and class he showed when red-carded was remarkable. I’m not going to lie: I’d have been down on all fours banging the turf in disbelief, pleading for a second chance from the referee. When I see some of the GAA goings on of late, he reminds me of a value system we take for granted from the age of eight in rugby: The ref is right.

At times it’s hard. Was it necessary for Nigel Owens to get involved in the Simon Zebo incident in Paris with Ulster’s Michael Lowry? Alan Quinlan called it right this week: The referee is there to adjudicate on the game. But that’s the world we live in nowadays, everyone’s mic’d up for sound.

From my perspective, Zebo was getting semi-ready for a fend off and was semi-ready to score in his head. He did something he shouldn’t, but it wasn’t a sustained attack or a ‘come and get me jibe’ either. It was like ‘you’ve no chance here, buddy’.

Did Zebo need to be telling Lowry that? No, he didn’t. Stuart McCloskey comes over and indicates ‘do that to me and I’ll knock your head off’. That’s exactly what Lowry’s team-mate should be doing, too.

Mountain out of a molehill territory, I think.


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