Scotland 18-21 Ireland, Six Nations, Murrayfield, February 27
Ireland's faith in O'Gara justified
February 27, 2011
Ireland fly-half Ronan O'Gara races round to score his side's third try at Murrayfield. © Getty Images
Ireland's Six Nations title hopes are intact, but only just, after they almost conspired to lose a game that was already won.
The visitors dominated Scotland at Murrayfield but their failure to take their chances and an alarming amount of errors offered the home side a way back into the game and left the result in doubt until the final whistle. In the end they only narrowly avoided what would have been a demoralising defeat. As against Italy earlier this month, Declan Kidney's side flirted with disaster and just like in Rome they had to rely on the steady hand of fly-half Ronan O'Gara to get them over the line.
The veteran stand-off rightfully claimed the Man of the Match honour, having delivered a timely reminder of his class. But this was more than the cameo he produced at the Stadio Flaminio - this was a something much more substantial and infinitely more impressive. Many had written the Munster veteran off coming into the Six Nations, with younger rival Jonathan Sexton apparently set to monopolise the No.10 shirt, but the 33-year-old is far from a spent force.
Sexton's failure to command the position saw his rival return to the starting XV at Murrayfield and he repaid Kidney's faith with a vintage display - controlling proceedings while delivering a kicking masterclass.
Kidney has never had time for those seemingly intent on drawing a line under O'Gara's international career. He would have liked to have seen Sexton make the shirt his own but the fact is he did not grab the opportunity when afforded it in their earlier Championship clashes. To have someone as reliable as O'Gara at your disposal is a luxury most international coaches would die for, even if he is in the autumn of his career.
O'Gara's assurance was in complete contrast to Scotland fly-half Ruaridh Jackson, who was making his first start in just his fourth Test appearance. That gulf in experience was arguably the difference between two sides who struggled to find their best form and were often lost in a fog of handling errors and scrum resets.
The contest could perhaps be best summed up by looking at the build-up to Ireland's second try that underlined Jackson's inexperience and O'Gara's class. The 23-year-old Jackson committed a cardinal sin in failing to find touch with a penalty and within a couple of minutes O'Gara's boot had threaded the ball into touch inside the Scotland 22. The hosts then failed to deal with the ball at the lineout and Irish muscle paved the way for scrum-half Eoin Reddan to skip over for a try.
The ease at which O'Gara fills a leadership role was one of the main reasons he was recalled to the No.10 shirt and he could not be faulted on that front either at Murrayfield, having got his side over the line when they looked as if they may waste the opportunity to stretch a Scotland side reduced to 14-men following the sin-binning of Scotland's Allan Jacobsen.
From there he went on to steer them to the brink of victory and he may have felt a little aggrieved to be asked to make way for Sexton in the final quarter. Kidney may well have been regretting that decision as his side lost their way under the pressure of a resurgent Scotland sensing an unlikely turnaround.
The introduction of Sexton may have been a ploy to ensure the Leinster playmaker did not suffer crisis in confidence on the sidelines having been dropped and left to watch O'Gara return to form. But thankfully for all involved Ireland steadied the ship and the embrace between the two players at the final whistle indicated a strong personal bond between them.
The errors will continue to haunt Kidney and Co and have blighted all three of their Championship clashes to date. The lack of composure in all phases of the game should be a major concern and suggests the squad is short on confidence but not all of the players are affected. No.8 Jamie Heaslip is never far from the centre of the action but on this occasion he was overshadowed by back-row team-mate Sean O'Brien, whose power and deceptive pace were to the fore. But improvement will be needed from the side as a whole if they are to preserve their title hopes in Cardiff next time against a Wales side that packs more of a punch than the Scots.
Scotland's woes know no end as a Championship campaign that promised so much continues to implode. Andy Robinson's side have now lost three in a row and face a daunting trip to Grand Slam-chasing England in a fortnight's time. Beyond that it is looking more and more like a Wooden Spoon decider against Italy on Super Saturday. The much-changed Scots failed to cross the whitewash once again and were heavily reliant on the kicking exploits of fullback Chris Paterson and replacement fly-half Dan Parks. There were brief glimpses of the line breaks that hint of a brighter future but no more than that and at this stage in the side's development you would want and expect more.
A late rally brought the Murrayfield crowd to its feet but it was too little, too late and not for the first time Scotland were left to rue the lack of a cutting edge. And having been denied by a desperate Irish rearguard, that chronic problem is set to be compounded by a heavy blow to the team's confidence. All the hard work of the last 12 months that infused the squad with self-belief is in danger of being wasted and will surely be the biggest casualty of this year's Championship.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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