Ronan O’Gara suggests it is not so much the no 10 who is pivotal to Rugby World Cup success, but the goal-kicker.
World class goal-kickers win World Cups, so it will be interesting to see the best in action over the next few weeks, because the pressure at a World Cup is like no other — and it will be a case of whoever can handle it.
For me, it was never a pressure scenario, because the furthest we got was the quarter-finals. The pressure amplifies when teams reach the semis and final, whatever the competition, be it a Grand Slam decider or a Heineken Cup final.
You have to start with New Zealand’s Dan Carter. When I saw him play recently, as the All Blacks stuffed Australia at Eden Park, in the Bledisloe Cup, I thought he looked exceptional.
He gave the greatest performance ever by a 10, against the Lions in Wellington, in the second Test in 2005. His variety was so impressive, and his kicking game, his running and decision-making; he just exuded class that night.
That game last month reminded me of 2005, not in its purity, but because he had that spurt back in his legs, which comes from confidence and game time, and if Carter can hit his peak once more, New Zealand will win.
His performance against the Lions was a decade ago, but if you do the right training, and you’re managed well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t pull that out of the locker again.
Sidestepping Father Time is a mug’s game, and it gets more difficult to summon the goods when it gets to quarter-, semi- and final stage, but to be able to do it in one of those games, and have a 7/10 or 8/10 performance in the other two games, is all you can ask.
Carter was absent, through injury, when New Zealand won the World Cup four years ago, and they got it done with a fourth-choice kicker, in Stephen Donald, who had been dragged off a fishing trip to make the bench in the final against France. The team’s performance turned out to be the greatest stutter ever, a wobble if there ever was one from the All Blacks.
New Zealand celebrating their World Cup win
They got the rub of the green from the referee and fell over the line. If it had gone on longer, France would have been deserving winners, but that showed the difficulty of dealing with home pressures, because New Zealand needed victory.
Sometimes, when you need something that bad, it gets to you. It affected everybody and the All Blacks were just overcome by the occasion. It happened to us, at Munster, in 2000, in the Heineken Cup final against Northampton, and when you’re part of that bubble it’s very hard to get away from it.
At least New Zealand are in no doubt as to who their first-choice 10 and kicker is this time around.
Who knows what South Africa are going to do. Are they going to revert to type and play the pressure game they’re more suited to, and kick the ball in the air really well and kick their goals? That will mean picking Morné Steyn — or are they going to persist with Handré Pollard?
It’s the same for Australia. Who will goal-kick for them? There are a few candidates for the Wallabies, depending on what team they pick. Michael Cheika has talked about selecting his half-backs on a horses-for-courses basis, in a difficult pool alongside Wales and England and, to be fair, they have such ability as rugby players, but I don’t think they’ve had an outstanding goal-kicker since Michael Lynagh.
It’s a wide-open World Cup, this time around, with probably six teams that can win it, and Australia have a far superior team, now, to the one that played the British & Irish Lions in 2013. Cheika has a bit of an X factor about him. Any team he gets involved with displays his characteristics and traits and the Wallabies will be one of the favourites.
For England, Owen Farrell is more proven than George Ford and that, I think, will be an issue for them come quarter-final time. Having done it — as against trying to do it — is such a benefit on a World Cup stage.
To be fair, Ford oozes class and has all the attributes to be the best out-half in world rugby, within 24 months, but it’ll be a different pressure he’ll experience this time around, playing at home, with the hopes of a nation on a goal-kicker’s shoulders.
So it will be interesting to see what happens there, in a selection tussle with Farrell, which is a similar one to the Springboks’.
And it is a difficult decision to make, because it is a World Cup. A successful campaign can be achieved in different ways, but, equally, you can get frightened by the task.
Ireland’s draw means they just have to beat France and then, hopefully, they will have Argentina to beat and the pressure is off, in many ways, because they will have achieved the objective of reaching a semi-final.
It isn’t quite that easy, but beating France and Argentina is not that big a hurdle. If you get emotional, though, and hot and bothered about it, you can overestimate what’s in front of you.
It is a great draw and it is nothing these players haven’t achieved already, in beating both nations — that is where Schmidt excels, in insisting on a short-term focus.
He won’t get caught up in the fanfare of a World Cup. He’ll think: there’s a Test match against France that has to be won, and then a Test match against Argentina, and that’s absolutely doable.
That Argentina have a young fly-half in Nicolas Sanchez is a bonus for Ireland, because he’s not the solution for them at 10. He’s steady, but in terms of natural ability, compared to other Argentine 10s down through the years, he’s nowhere near the class of, say, Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Hernandez.And he’s not a good enough goal-kicker, either, which, in the past, has always been a Puma strength — the ability to kick goals and drop goals. I don’t think they know their best 10.
But Ireland are playing against French players who have never had so much time with each other. They don’t have a great game-plan, but they’re such incredible athletes. They play for each other and, with that ability, they’re going to be dangerous.
They showed, against England at Stade de France a couple of weeks back, that if they get a lead like they did, then they’re a different team.
Of course, finding the right 10 has been a problem for France and all the emphasis, over here, has been on finding their goal-kicker. Now, they think they’ve found that solution, with Freddie Michalak.
The perception of Michalak is often that he’s flaky and off-the-cuff, but all the French coaches and players I’ve spoken to think he’s extremely hard-working and dedicated, and he practices unbelievably hard. A cocktail of talent and hard work is very productive. The interesting question, for me, will be whether he can get a return on a World Cup stage.
You have to admire Michalak’s ability to keep coming back, when there are so many doubters, but he knows how to win and Philippe Saint-Andre has backed him to the hilt, confident that he is the guy to deliver for him.
That kind of backing is huge for a fly-half and, in Ireland’s case, Johnny Sexton derives so much confidence from Joe Schmidt’s backing on everything. He’s the coach Johnny performs for, so this relationship is crucial to Ireland making history at RWC 2015.
Goal-kickers are important weapons and the top teams need them to succeed. That makes for fascinating viewing, not least in Pool A, with England, Wales and Australia. One of those teams will have to go home and there will be turmoil for whichever one it is.
It’s likely to be Wales. I feel history counts for a lot in these tournaments and Australia have long been an Achilles’ heel for the Welsh, but they can’t really deal with England and their pack.
Wales, meanwhile, cause problems for England, but, this week, they’ve been dealing with their own crises. The loss of Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny will knock the stuffing out of the squad in the short term, but I’m not certain Halfpenny’s loss will be as big a blow as some might imagine. Yes, the full-back’s greatest strength is that the bigger the occasion, the bigger he rises to it, just like his coach, Neil Jenkins.
But his absence could allow fly-half, Dan Biggar, to make an impact on the world stage. He’s got a fantastic temperament and his play has got better and better over the last few years.
He has the fundamentals, he has immense ability and he has served his time. He’s been frustrated, but he spoke up against the Welsh coaches a few years ago, has believed in and backed himself, and he’s come good again.
Biggar has been very consistent for the Ospreys over the years and his performance in Dublin, for Wales against Ireland last month, was very polished. He drives that Welsh team. People say he’s not flash, but he doesn’t need to be flash. He’s tough and he’s a strong goal-kicker.
Anyone who follows Northern Hemisphere rugby will have seen him kicking goals from the right-hand side and in pressure situations, like his match-winning kick against Leinster, in a Pro12 final at the RDS.
And I liked the way he took over from Halfpenny against Italy, in Rome, on that chaotic last day of the Six Nations, in March, and kicked really well in that game.
So, it’s no surprise to me that he is producing, and he can fill the breach in Halfpenny’s absence.
The next big question is whether any of the other major contenders for this World Cup can cope without their first-choice kickers. If you look at any of their team profiles, they might easily get by for one game, but when you’re missing your talisman, can you repeat it over two or three games in a row? The intangibles and the unforseens. An interesting six weeks await.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved