RONAN O'GARA: See what I mean about leadership?

Ronan O'Gara returns again to the subject of leadership in sport

I make no apologies for returning again to the subject of leadership in sport. I hope reading these columns, people realise the importance of presence and leadership across the sporting spectrum.

You get to a certain level where there are plenty of good players, with and without the ball, but the will to win — or better to say the refusal to submit — is paramount in separating winning and losing.

When I was starting off, Mick Galwey always inspired me to do better. Gaillimh was an exceptionally positive captain who had the ability to nearly always say the right thing at the right time to give me confidence.

Maybe rugby wasn’t as technical and tactical then, but there was a greater emphasis then on playing for your team-mates, your supporters.

And for a cause.

Maybe something’s been lost in today’s game if those qualities are not as relevant. That’s the fascination of the human mind, the ability to tap into the senses to make you feel worthwhile a) about yourself and b) about who you represent. It’s the most powerful tool available to us all — not just those playing sport.

I started thinking again about that when I heard the calls for an experimental element for Ireland’s forthcoming Six Nations visit to Twickenham.

Amid the doom and gloom around Irish rugby this week, it’s good to bring a sprinkle of perspective to the debate. You start throwing young fellas like Ringrose and McCloskey in against England and let’s argue that Ireland get a trimming. First off, you’ve let down every Irish rugby person around the world who is proud of their national team. And that’s to say nothing of what it would do to the confidence of the rookie talents Ireland could introduce.

Is a backs-against-the-wall mindset really the best place to be putting in a callow youngster like Gary Ringrose? At a time when it’s more experienced leaders we need. When the likes of Ringrose comes through, there is a duty of care to the lad to ensure he is an international for a decade — not the three or four games it might take to destroy him in the wrong circumstances.

I’d like to think I follow a lot of rugby, and I’ve seen him play perhaps six competitive games. Two of them were Pro 12 games. International standard is a level or two above Champions Cup, so the notion he is ready to face England next week is fanciful at best, irresponsible at worst.

There are no greenhorns playing international rugby. There are many playing domestic or Pro 12 League, and there are a few even playing Champions Cup, but there are none at international level among the world’s top eight countries. Rugby against the Dragons is light years away from rugby against Wales. It’s like a different sport.

Stuart McCloskey is physically more robust than Ringrose and has nice hands, but surely Simon Zebo and Keith Earls will come straight back into the team against England

In England’s hands

The Six Nations is big business too. And every loss is a costly hit for Lansdowne Road. 7.2m people tuned into the BBC last Saturday for the coverage and not all of them were to watch Paul O’Connell. Every win, and loss, has a material effect on the bottom line profit and loss for the respective unions.

After seeing off the Azzurri, the Championship is shaping up nicely for Eddie Jones and England. With Ireland struggling, it will come down to a England-Wales shootout. France might have four points out of four but nobody here is giddy with excitement. Last Saturday in Paris was bloody awful fare. It’s in England’s hands, but there will be some sort of reaction from Ireland tomorrow week. In that context, the loss of Paul O’Connell is still difficult to ignore. His absence is 10 points right there. It’s that big. He’s that important in everything he does.

I made reference on theTV last Saturday to Ireland being mentally brittle, but they wouldn’t have been if Paulie was on the pitch at the Stade de France and not on the sideline doing TV work. Because he wouldn’t let the players mentally opt out, so to speak. It’s the unseen things, the unseen look you get from him that gives you inspiration and a lot of confidence to go where your body doesn’t want to go. The kind of place where if you didn’t get that insane peer pressure, you just wouldn’t do it. Know what I mean?

Ireland have a cumulative points deficit of one. We’ve drawn a game and inexplicably lost the other by a point. It puts them on the back foot, but they can still finish with seven points. We will be outsiders going to Twickenham, and I don’t believe we have the personnel to win, especially with Sean O’Brien out. But I wouldn’t be worried about playing the current English team. It’s the same horse with a different jockey. The same group Ireland has been playing and beating for years.

The two-week break is a godsend for the Irish players. Paris was awful, from both sides. If Ireland had won, it might have brushed a lot of issues behind the curtains and under the carpet. The quality, even allowing for the conditions, was sub-standard. France were there to be put away after 50 minutes before the penny dropped for them: ‘These Irish lads are very average’. They gave Ireland every chance to close the lid on them. It was crying out for a stellar input and leadership to breach the line for Ireland when it was 9-3. No David Wallace or Brian O’Driscoll these days. Sean O’Brien was gone at that stage. Stander can do it, but he’s still callow. You could see the second row is already really missing Paul. When fellas are there, they don’t get appreciated as much.

To be fair, options were limited. When your 13 is playing on one leg, as Jared Payne was, and Dave Kearney was gone off, then your option off the bench is Eoin Reddan on the wing.

Ian Madigan shipped a bit of criticism, justifiably so, for his kick out on the full after the French try. However, it never comes down to one incident, so no one should be looking at the restart as the reason Ireland lost. Seventy minutes had elapsed at that stage, and Ireland had accumulated nine points.

Of course, handing the French a scrum at that stage was exactly what you didn’t want to do. With ten minutes remaining , there was no need for panic. For France, with their discipline, that’s a very long time. But the consequent scrum meant France had to platform with a dominant scrum to turn the screw. It was poor execution and poor communication, whoever called it — even if it wasn’t going out on the full, it was straight into a French player’s hands anyway.

Jonny Sexton going off was frustrating and ill-timed too because at that stage Ireland needed every leader they had to marshall the game and the clock. In that final 10 minutes, it was all about someone leading Ireland home from Paris with two points and on to Twickenham.

See what I’m saying about leadership?


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