Ronan O'Gara: Earls has more credit in the bank than Stockdale

Quite a lot was achieved in Ireland’s last Six Nations victory over Wales in Dublin.

Ronan O'Gara: Earls has more credit in the bank than Stockdale

Quite a lot was achieved in Ireland’s last Six Nations victory over Wales in Dublin. By the time Andy Farrell and his management sat down last Sunday to strategise for England, certain key things had crystallised.

First, the debate over the No 15 jersey has been put to bed, unforeseen circumstances notwithstanding. Jordan Larmour’s 80 minutes against Wales said to Farrell: I am the Leinster 15 and now the Ireland 15. There was no discussion last Sunday night on full back. The big debate was probably on the two wing positions.

For me Keith Earls starts. But come Sunday the best back in Ireland for the last two years, including the World Cup, wears No 23. At Twickenham England will target Larmour and Jacob Stockdale. Ireland will need the experience that Earls brings. Watch what happened Saracens’ Nick Tompkins in Dublin. The centre couldn’t find his feet or catch his breath for 40 minutes. He recovered in the second period but…

That’s the difference with test level rugby. Ireland went after him. Larmour went after him for his try. Now Larmour is the hunted. Twickenham is a daunting place. He could do with Earls around.

People might say I am biased on Earls. Wrong. I am informed.

The body of evidence is there. Andrew Conway is the form player in Ireland for sure, but I don’t see how Stockdale starts ahead of Earls.

Actually, let me clarify that. Of course, one can see why Stockdale starts. The guy is quality. Plus Farrell is going with his guys. Healy ahead of Kilcoyne. Murray not Cooney. (Not that that one is even up for debate for me). The target at the moment for the new Ireland management ticket is putting a winning run together.

Stockdale is already a fine player and will get better. Yes, his try rate has slowed — he’s only five in the last 18 tests after a sensational opening stanza — but he’s in that phase now where the opposition has a fix on him. The first 18 months are fine and then you get analysed. His best is yet to come but I can’t class him, in any regard, better than Keith Earls’ all-round game. Conway is the form winger, but Earls has more credit in the bank than Stockdale.

The new head coach has set out his stall and respect to him for that. He is building a record. Experimentation can wait. The dynamic and the squad culture is more chilled out, we hear. That’s enough change for the time being. Blooding new players can start 18 months out from the 2023 World Cup.

Besides, this is different gravy. England at Twickenham is the reddest circle on the calendar. We are ingrained into thinking that. We have moved onto a different sphere of thinking in terms of what represents a win, but heritage is heritage.

Another odd thing that happened in the win over Wales: Ireland’s confidence has escalated dramatically on the basis of one game. With that, comes fresh expectancy. From a stumble over Scotland to a skip over the Welsh. Is it all that straightforward?

To me, 2019 is as relevant as it is fresh. England may be without the Vunipolas but they were World Cup finalists a few months ago after taking down the All Blacks. This is the crossroads fixture of 2020.

Andy Farrell
Andy Farrell

Ireland win on Sunday and Grand Slam is written all over the remaining schedule. With respect to Italy, Ireland will go to Paris looking for a Slam, and they will prove too intelligent and disciplined for France to come up short. But a loss Sunday, and the manner of it, brings all the 2019 spooks back into the team room. With that, there’s every chance they lose two of the last three games.

The new World Cup cycle can wait. The Ireland coach will want all his eight-out-of-tens on the pitch Sunday. From Stander to Ryan, from O’Mahony to Furlong, from Sexton to Healy.

Cian Healy continues to amaze me. Because of his diligent preparation, he remains a superb athlete. His level of flexibility for a prop allows him such longevity and durability. He is under pressure from David Kilcoyne who has been maturing very well as a prop. But like so many other slots, Farrell has backed his No 1. He’ll sleep well knowing he is sending out a side sprinkled with players who will guarantee no less than 7 out of ten and may rise to a nine.

And springing Earls off the bench will provide a boost whatever position he slots into. And maybe having him in the 23 is just the type of incentive Stockdale needs to make his a nine out of ten day.

Garrett always led way

Three hours before Racing 92 entertained Anthony Foley’s Munster in the Heineken Cup in October 2016, I saw Garrett Fitzgerald’s number coming up on my phone. Even for a man who cut through the artificial bullshit of sporting egos and theatrics, I reckoned it was a bit late in the day for a catch-up coffee in Paris. What he said was something I will take to the grave.

And then he broke down.

That was Garrett the person. By the time it came to pulling the pieces of that awful afternoon together, Garrett the professional was back in charge, doing right by Olive, the Foley family and Munster rugby. I find it dreadful that he passes away at 65 and doesn’t get to enjoy his retirement with Áine and the three children.

That he doesn’t get to do his anorak thing and go to schools’ game and club games and take a mental note of the nascent talents on view. I played with Munster all my career, yet I feel a blow-in compared to Garrett.

As I said on the Irish Examiner podcast this week, he nurtured a group that achieved plenty but more importantly, fostered friendships that will last a lifetime.

That day in Paris was a blur. We stumbled through it in a haze. The clearest thinking, the straightest bat, came from the CEO. Leadership is a special quality. I know that now.

I saw it then.

Rest in peace Garrett.

No winners as Townsend and Russell standoff continues to fester

Whatever side of the fence Scottish supporters position themselves on in the Townsend v Russell debate, all are agreed on one thing: there are no winners out of this.

The fact that the saga is dormant now may remove it from the public consciousness but it will continue to fester.

In many respects here, the key has been Russell’s Scottish team-mates. If the players really wanted their out-half back, one presumes they’ve been kicking down the coach’s door? Unless, of course, there’s an attitude of “I’m alright Jack and all I want is to be on the team”.

Surely if you have ambition, you’d want Finn Russell on your team? However, even a cursory examination of Russell’s comments about Townsend and their relationship would reveal the level of toxicity in this. Some of Russell’s comments were absolutely lethal. He has attacked Townsend’s character as much as his coaching.

Clearly there is a very frustrated player. Clearly there is a coach looking to set a standard with a playing group he has presumably consulted with. It’s an ugly mess. Imagine what it will look like if Scotland lose in Rome tomorrow?

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