The exciting problems at number 10!

With David Cameron having recently joined Twitter, Ed Miliband seemingly coming of age and the ever colourful Boris Johnson even mooting a challenge to the sitting PM, you may have thought yours truly was about to embark on a political piece given the above headline. Well, as a political newcomer in this country ignominiously put it a while ago ‘chilax’!
The heading refers to the bountiful options available to Declan Kidney and those in control of Irish rugby in the pivotal fly half berth. For some reason, it’s a position the Irish have always had exceptional performers in. Players like Ollie Campbell, Tony Ward, Eric Elwood, David Humphries, Ronan O’Gara and, most recently, Jonathan Sexton.


ULSTERS PADDY JACKSON

Sexton is now most definitely in pole position. What is mostly debatable now is who is providing the first line of back up. Over a period of a few years, the Irish team more or less picked itself. Owing to a combination of the success of the Irish provinces in the European competitions and the Triple Crown win of 2004 which heralded the most glorious era the game has had for a long time.
Throughout that successful spell, the half back axis between Peter Stringer and O’Gara was crucial. Then the winds changed direction. Leinster have become the most successful team in European history. Thus, Sexton has played his way in as number one. With himself and his Munster counterpart both being very effective when deployed. Eoin Reddin and Conor Murray have been engaged in a similar joust for scrum half and – thanks to Ulster’s great start to their campaign – Paul Marshall must be on Kidney’s radar now also.
Recent developments, however, would suggest that the out half contest has more than two competitors. For one thing, even though it pains this corner to admit as such, O’Gara may no longer be guaranteed a starting spot down south. Ian Keatley is a quickly emerging force. It was only when he entered the fray that Rob Penney’s charges looked any way efficient against Leinster.
Aside from that, the most impressive side so far this season have been Ulster. And central to everything they have done has been Paddy Jackson. He surely merits at least a call up. Then there’s Ian Madigan. Were he not competing with someone of the calibre of Sexton, surely would waltz onto most teams. So where does all that leave O’Gara? The answer looks obvious.
Or it would, if Kidney wasn’t obsessed with a debilitating conservatism. Now, I am not deserting my liking of O’Gara. Not doubting the achievements of Kidney with the provinces or Ireland either. But it sadly seems unlikely that Jackson, Keatley or Madigan will be given the chance to stake a claim. In the short term at least.
Elsewhere, change may be unavoidable. Paul O’Connell returned to the Munster setup for the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup and, while thinking of a Munster or Irish team without him seems weird, the clock and mounting injuries will make that a reality sooner rather than later. Ditto Leo Cullen. So that’s one area alterations must come eventually. Having featured in the summer games, Dan Touhy will presumably have go up the pecking order a bit. From a local perspective, it’d be great to see Devin Toner get more game time too.
No, I haven’t forgotten about Connacht! Indeed, one needed only to have seen the recent excellent documentary on TG4 to see how far they’ve come. From an absurd – potentially disgraceful – scenario where the team in the west were threatened with extinction, to a point where there is much talent emerging from the province.
Already, the likes of Ronan Loughney and Tiernan O’Halloran have been on the fringes of the national squad. Had he stayed with what was admittedly his adopted province, Niall O’Connor would surely have given Kidney et al something to think about. Having gone ‘home’ to Ulster – and Connacht having replaced him with former Scottish star Dan Parkes – he seems destined to play second fiddle Jackson. Hope will still be maintained that gets Ireland’s call one day. He’s certainly worth it. As is Gavin Duffy.
But, back to the exciting problems at number ten that brought about this column in the first place. Not for the first time Ireland have numerous options available to them in that area. Unless Declan Kidney has a dramatic change in psyche, I’d still expect Sexton and O’Gara to fill the spots for the weeks and months ahead. This would be one occasion it would be great to be wrong however!

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