Age doesn’t matter, teams need young blood, says Ronan O’Gara

Ronan O'Gara has tried to put himself in the Ireland boss’s shoes this week and he knows all too well that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to team selection.

Age doesn’t matter, teams need young blood, says Ronan O’Gara

Ronan O'Gara has tried to put himself in the Ireland boss’s shoes this week and he knows all too well that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to team selection.

The La Rochelle head coach has no doubt his Ireland counterpart has a “massive backbone” and that any difficult decisions won’t be shirked, but there is both an art and a science to the task of choosing 15 individuals for the one collective.

It’s easy to holler about ‘form players’ from the cheap seats at the back, not so straightforward when you’re centre stage and taking into account everything from combinations, the opposition, physical loads, style of play and a ream of other considerations.

O’Gara has drilled into the depth chart available to the Englishman this week and found himself coming up short on alternative options to satisfy the appetite for real, significant change that continues to hold ahead of Saturday’s Six Nations meeting with Wales.

After some deliberation, all he could suggest was a return to the second row for Devin Toner and the switch of Iain Henderson to the blindside.

This was before Farrell named a team which is even closer to the template favoured by Joe Schmidt in 2019.

Caelan Doris was the poster boy for the new generation last week but O’Gara sensed a mood of deflation in a stadium eager to watch the young back row take his first strides at Test level when the No. 8 exited the scene after four minutes against the Scots.

“You need young blood like that, energy from young lads who just have no respect for their body. They just get up off the ground and, while Peter [O’Mahony] and CJ [Stander] are established internationals and mature guys who know how to get the best out of their body...

“Max Deegan is a really good player as well, the bits I’ve seen of him at club level.

It is important that you have a Doris or a Deegan that gets game-time just to add that recklessness. These guys have no fear factor. They just play.

“At that age, you don’t feel the knocks. There is no wear and tear. They just bounce off the ground. They are bundles of energy, like Dan Leavy. He’s an exceptional player and that will be proven the next number of years.”

There is evidence to show that Ireland coaches have always been suspicious of youth but there are exceptions to that rule, not least in the presence in the team in recent years of standout talents such as James Ryan, Jordan Larmour, and Robbie Henshaw.

Go back further and some of today’s veterans were similarly green when they first planted their feet on this stage. O’Mahony was only 22 when pitched into a full Six Nations campaign. Keith Earls was 21 when he faced Canada and New Zealand in the space of seven days.

Not for France this piecemeal approach. Fabien Galthie went for broke with a painfully youthful squad in this championship and he was rewarded for that boldness with a stunning defeat of England in their opener at the Stade de France on Sunday.

Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, and the 22-year-old Gregory Alldritt, who plays his rugby for O’Gara at La Rochelle, were some of those included in the new-look phalanx that crushed the pre-tournament favourites’ Grand Slam ambitions in Saint-Denis.

“It doesn’t matter what age you are,” said the former Ireland out-half.

I go back to Denis Leamy and Keith Earls when I was a senior player at Munster: Just get these guys on the team, you know? That’s what happens in high-performing environments.

Galthie and France are pursuing this policy with the stated ambition of peaking as a team at the next World Cup in 2023. Ireland has failed time and again to judge their arc into successive global tournaments but O’Gara would love a stab at it one day.

Farrell’s thoughts are more immediate.

The opening defeat of the Scots didn’t blow anyone away but O’Gara claimed a healthy level of suspicion over pre-match expectations that the visitors would be ‘hockeyed’ in Ballsbridge.

The assimilation onto Gregor Townsend’s coaching staff of a man like Steve Tandy promised a tougher nut to catch than the shell of a team that disintegrated in Yokohama and Jonathan Sexton’s rustiness after an extended path out with injury was another consideration.

Sexton went on to score all 19 of Ireland’s points but O’Gara wants to see more from the team.

“Ireland need to find tempo. They need to find a flow in their game. It seems to be that they’re a small bit down in confidence. That’s only an observation, I can’t accurately comment on that, but it seems to me that they’re just a little hesitant.”

An increase in intensity is high on his list of priorities as Wayne Pivac brings Wales on the road for the first time and the mood music promises to be different for this one even if the Ireland team named is strikingly familiar to those this last year or more.

Wales, after all, are reigning Grand Slam champions. They have won 11 of their last dozen games, nilled Italy last week while amassing 42 points of their own, and they kept Ireland scoreless until injury-time when the sides last met in the Six Nations.

“Ireland know this is their key game in the Six Nations,” said O’Gara.

“Home advantage is huge and there will probably be a different buzz around the crowd this weekend. It will be interesting to see how Ireland go about finding space against Wales.

"I think you will see a lot more tactical kicking, more attacking kicks, because they leave [Leigh] Halfpenny with an awful lot of ground to cover and, if you kick accurately, I think you can get dividends there.”

As part of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, Guinness will host a series of events and experiences in venues and locations across the country, celebrating the six competing nations and open to everyone from rugby fans, rivals and friends alike to join. Visit www.guinness.com to find out more throughout the Championship.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox