Hogan banking on his leadership credentials

FIVE NATIONS COUNTDOWN: Ireland's new captain has had plenty of practice for the role. David Hughes reports
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The Independent Online
About the only thing Niall Hogan has not captained is a ship. Indeed, so Athertonesque has his curriculum vitae been that it is a wonder he did not pick up the sobriquet FIC (Future Irish Captain) somewhere along the line.

At every level of his career he has been the team leader, from the Terenure College Schools team to the Irish team that plays Wales at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, and everything in between: Leinster Under-19s, under-20s and Senior X; Terenure senior team; the Irish schools, colleges, students, under-21s and A side...

Anyone missing? ''Beaumont Hospital,'' he retorts. Clearly though, he has captaincy material. Like Atherton, he has often been chided about it, though the 24-year-old doctor is adamant that captaining Ireland was never something he set out to do: "You can't afford to go around thinking like that.''

Team-mates confirm that, like most scrum-halves, Hogan is mouthy on the pitch, and he is renowned for his decision-making. Hogan claims this goes with the No 9's territory. "It's no extra burden on my shoulders," he said. "I'd be talking on the pitch, saying what I feel, so it won't weigh too heavily on me.''

Modesty forbids any further qualifications, though when pressed to name more, he says: "Perhaps decision-making on the pitch. And also I'm a character who has a bit of urgency and maybe can get other players motivated if they need it. Perhaps the selectors see that as a plus mark.''

So widely recognised is he for his leadership abilities that his selection as captain in the light of Jim Staples' enforced absence was deemed a foregone conclusion despite an error-strewn performance upon his recall in the Paris debacle. After all, if performance level in Paris were the sole trademark, all bar Victor Costello might have been guillotined. Hogan's captaincy record helped his cause considerably.

Hogan did not share the view, and expected to be dropped. "I wasn't happy at all and I would have been content just to be named in the next side," he said. "Basically it was the passing. I had a few loose passes which you just can't afford.

"We work hard enough to win the possession and we can't afford to turn it over, no matter how we do it, whether it's kicking, passing, dropping it in the tackle, whatever. We can't afford to do that so I was disappointed with that aspect of my game.''

The collective performances against Scotland and France were beyond explanation. Hogan attributes them to two bad days at the office. The theory that the team has gone stale after a sudden, intense preparation in view of Murray Kidd's less than ideal mid-season appointment is also disregarded.

In any event, Wales beckon on Saturday and once more there is another wooden spoon to be fought over. Half-way through the season and only a third of the team have survived. It hardly seems the most propitious of circumstances to assume the helm.

"Perfect timing, huh?'' he said. "Any time is a good time. You can't pick and choose. I don't mind.'' In point of fact, it could have been worse. Ireland have lurched from almost blind optimism to suicidal despair. As ever, there are few shades of grey, so in a sense Hogan's Ireland can't do much worse.

Hogan is as innately self-confident as he is gutsy. ''France were playing in Paris and they always play with a certain confidence against Ireland, which they don't play with against anybody else, and OK, we suffered badly on the day, but we feel we're as good a team if not better than Wales; we're playing in Lansdowne Road and in totally different circumstances.

''In the short term, victory against Wales is paramount. We don't just want to survive and scrape through the season.''

Talking a good fight is one thing, but in discussing specifics Hogan returns to an age-old theme: ball retention. ''We have to develop more continuity. We can't afford to go from set phase to set-piece all the time. We have to speed up the game, ruck a lot more and hopefully that develops more continuity.''

Hence in one of six changes in personnel, the selectors have recalled Dennis McBride to a previously imbalanced back row and moved Jeremy Davidson to the second row in a clear attempt to make the pack more mobile and plug the porous defence.

With another largely untried team, a good start would seem to be imperative, to which he responds: "A good start, a good middle and a good finish is crucial.'' He seems to have grasped some of the essentials already.

n The England centre, Jeremy Guscott, will boycott Bath's matches against the rugby league champions, Wigan. Dismissing the cross-code challenge as "a pointless exercise," he added: "They would thrash us at league and we would thrash them at union.''

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