O'Gara insists experience won the day
February 6, 2011
Replacement fly-half Ronan O'Gara rescued Ireland with a late drop-goal in Rome © Getty Images
Veteran fly-half Ronan O'Gara believes his big match experience was the key to Ireland avoiding a Six Nations disaster against Italy in Rome on Saturday.
The 33-year-old playmaker entered the game as a second half replacement at the Stadio Flaminio only to see his side fall behind to a late try from Italy's Luke McLean. But Ireland, spearheaded by their record points scorer, conjured a great escape with O'Gara landing a drop goal with two minutes to go to seal a 13-11 victory and deny Italy a first tournament victory in the fixture.
While acknowledging Jonathan Sexton enjoyed an accomplished afternoon in the No.10 shirt, O'Gara believes his own nous was key in preventing the Six Nations' greatest upset since Italy joined the championship in 2000.
"At that stage in the game you go at it and don't think too much, you just do your job," said the Munster half-back. "The ability to do that comes with experience. As a youngster you don't understand that.
"I was told that once but it's when you get in my position - and I've been lucky to steer the Ireland and Munster ship for 10 years - that you understand it. Then someone like Jonny comes in and he's really good but to continue the analogy, when the ship hits choppy waters you bring someone in.
"Jonny played well, but I got backed to come on and try to win the game. It's important to have two fellas fighting it out because we can offer a lot going forward."
Italy allowed opponents rated 1/8 favourites to wriggle off the hook having done the hard work in fashioning a superb 76th-minute try for fullback Luke McLean. Leading 11-10, and with Ireland flanker Denis Leamy in the sin-bin, they just needed to collect the restart and run down the clock.
Instead they immediately surrendered possession, enabling O'Gara to strike, before making a hash with their own drop goal attempt at the death. For O'Gara the nail-biting conclusion evoked memories of the 2007 World Cup pool clash with Georgia, which Ireland won 14-10 after surviving a desperate late assault by the heavy underdogs.
"We were leading when Jonny went off and then Italy scored...it was looking like Georgia again and I was thinking 'no, don't do this'," he said. "It was experience that was the difference between the sides at the end. It was important that when the gun was put to our heads we found another gear.
"Had Mirco Bergamasco kicked the conversion I like to think there was a try in us. It would have been an almighty kick in the balls for us if we'd lost and it was important we got out of the hole.
"I was very fresh when I came onto the pitch. We had plenty of time and I felt relaxed. It sums up my mood at the moment. I've been really excited and confident in camp during the last two weeks, which is unlike me!"
The coming week's inquest into what went wrong should be brief given Ireland were clearly placed in such a precarious position by their abysmal finishing.
"We made a lot of handling errors in ideal conditions for rugby and they seemed to add up," said O'Gara. "Add them all up and they probably equate to 20 minutes less pressure on them.
"At times it was very intense and there were nearly some cracking tries scored, but at this level nearly isn't good enough. Experience tells you that playing Italy fourth or fifth in the competition is the time to build a score. They're probably disappointed they didn't get the win."
Adding a conspiratorial element to the afternoon was the revelation by Italy coach Nick Mallett that referee Romain Poite had written to the Italian Rugby Federation apologising for the way he refereed prop Martin Castrogiovanni at the scrum in the fixture last year. Poite was in charge again yesterday and Ireland were hammered 13-5 on the penalty count, with many of them occurring at the set-piece.
The Irish camp will review the video before deciding whether to pursue the matter further via official channels.
Head coach Declan Kidney reported a clean bill of health following the encounter and could be lifted by the return of Jamie Heaslip from an ankle injury in time for France on Sunday.
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