JONATHAN SEXTON’S inclusion might be the one grabbing the majority of the headlines this week but the decision to choose Donncha O’Callaghan over Leo Cullen has stirred plenty of debate.
The Munster forward will play his first competitive game since January 22 in Twickenham on Saturday and Leinster’s Malcolm O’Kelly admitted his surprise at the decision.
“For Leo, I’m not sure why he’s been dropped,” said O’Kelly who won 92 caps in the Irish second row. “I suppose there is the whole incumbent thing and Donncha’s been there for years. I can’t understand it really, but there you go.”
Cullen has impressed in the two Six Nations games against Italy and France, particularly in the line-out which has excelled despite the team’s issues elsewhere.
The obvious explanation for the swap is O’Callaghan’s long-established partnership with Paul O’Connell, one that started with Munster and continued with Ireland when he took over from none other than O’Kelly himself.
O’Callaghan has won almost 60 caps for his country since 2003 while Cullen’s tally is still in the low-20s having earned his first against New Zealand a year earlier when he replaced O’Kelly in Auckland.
“Donncha’s a strong player, there’s no doubt about it, a good hard player,” said O’Kelly. “Obviously that’s what they’re looking for, athletic. I don’t know what goes on inside, but I feel for Leo.”
As for Sexton’s elevation above O’Gara? “I was delighted for Jonny. It was an obvious enough change for Deccie to make. I think Jonny’s been playing really well. He was the incumbent, only for the injury and Rog came in and got the opportunity to play a couple of games. After a big loss like the one against France there’s going to be changes. There has to be changes and he makes way for Jonny. He gets the opportunity, but it’s still a daunting place to go.”
O’Kelly knows that all too well.
Ireland conceded 35, 50 and 45 points on his first three visits to RFU HQ but his last two appearances, in March or 2004 and again 24 months later, resulted in a pair of famous victories.
The win four years ago clinched a Triple Crown but the 19-13 victory in ‘04 was even more special as it was England’s first defeat since claiming the Webb Ellis trophy in Sydney the year before.
“It was incredible because they were world champions and the year before they had beaten us convincingly at Lansdowne Road. We really felt we were a team that were capable of winning over there and we’d come – not so much close there – but we’d put in some strong performances.
“They were more in transition than we were but it was still a massive feat for us to do it and we required big games from all of our players. We managed to find it in us to overcome them. Even though we were at our very best it was a struggle.”
He can see parallels in this weekend’s fixture but stresses the point that Ireland will still need to play at their very peak to overcome England even if the hosts are not the team they once were.
“There will be absolutely nothing in it and even though, on paper, Ireland are a better side and have proved themselves by winning bigger challenges than the England team, that’s not to say that the English team that’s going out isn’t an incredibly strong team with the ability to pull off major victories. As good as Ireland are, they require themselves to be playing at 100%, otherwise they’re not going to win. They have the ability to do it, but the hard thing is finding the cohesion and the little something that makes the difference.”
One way or another it will be a special day with John Hayes due to record his 100th cap for his country just short of 12 months after usurping O’Kelly as the country’s most capped international.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s a great credit to him. He has probably been the most important player for the Irish team over the last 10 years. I remember speaking to Deccy in New Zealand a long time ago and he off-handedly said it to me that he’s the most important man. I’m delighted that he’s been honoured with this landmark achievement because he’s just been an absolute rock. I had my opportunities and things didn’t go exactly my way but, 92, you can’t really complain.”
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