Carrot and sticks: O'Gara keeps aim simple in pursuit of winning kicks

Ireland's stand-off tells Paul Newman about his rejection of kicking coaches or sports psychologists and his side's Grand Slam potential
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It is the lot of the fly-half. When a team is winning - and winning well - the man in the No 10 shirt can usually expect more than his fair share of the bouquets. When that same team is underperforming, you can be sure he will also be copping most of the blame. Just think of Jonny Wilkinson at the World Cup: rescued by the half-time arrival of Mike Catt and denounced as tactically inept in the quarter-final against Wales, he was the hero against Australia in the final a fortnight later.

It is the lot of the fly-half. When a team is winning - and winning well - the man in the No 10 shirt can usually expect more than his fair share of the bouquets. When that same team is underperforming, you can be sure he will also be copping most of the blame. Just think of Jonny Wilkinson at the World Cup: rescued by the half-time arrival of Mike Catt and denounced as tactically inept in the quarter-final against Wales, he was the hero against Australia in the final a fortnight later.

In a Six Nations Championship high on drama but low on quality, it is no surprise who has been taking the brunt of the criticism, particularly in those teams that have disappointed.

Charlie Hodgson, his wayward place-kicking having contributed to England's demise against the French at Twickenham a fortnight ago, is under intense scrutiny, while many of France's problems - despite their unbeaten record - are being laid at the feet of another fly-half, Yann Delaigue, who had been recalled after Frédéric Michalak paid the price for the Tricolores' autumn disappointments.

The man wearing No 10 for Ireland, one of the two other unbeaten teams, has had, by his standards, a quiet championship. Ronan O'Gara struggled with a different ball in Rome - the Italians use Mitre balls rather than the more common Gilbert version - and against Scotland, in the absence of the injured Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, the 27-year-old Munster man rarely showed his handling skills as he kicked for position at almost every opportunity.

While his own form with the boot has remained consistent - only three of 13 place-kicks missed in the championship so far to follow autumn internationals in which he scored all 17 points against South Africa and all 21 against Argentina - O'Gara felt genuine sympathy as Hodgson and Olly Barkley missed five kicks for England a fortnight ago.

"I hadn't been thinking about my own place-kicking very much recently, but what happened in that Twickenham match makes you wonder about your own game," O'Gara said in a break during preparations for tomorrow's match in Dublin against England. "When you're the kicker, a lot of attention is focused on you, but in reality it's only a part of your game. And place-kicking is just a small part of your kicking game: you have restarts and everything else. But you have to accept that place-kicking is what is going to get most of the attention, because that's where you're going to earn most points."

When Mick Galwey, the former Ireland forward, was asked in these pages recently to name the greatest performance he had seen in the championship, he nominated O'Gara's Twickenham display 12 months ago, when he controlled the game as the men in green ended England's 22-match unbeaten run at headquarters.

Yet O'Gara remembers how the game had started ominously for him when he missed a simple kick. How did he react? "I was angry," he recalled. "I'd been kicking really well all week. Then that happens and it really gets at you. But I soon forgot about it. The feeling only lasted for 10 seconds... Everyone makes mistakes in a game. You just have to put it out of your mind."

Not that O'Gara has a problem with concentrating on the matter in hand. "Once you've kicked off and get into the game, outside influences don't come into it," he said. "You feel like you're playing in an empty stadium sometimes because you're just focusing on what you do." In an age of kicking coaches and sports psychologists, O'Gara's approach is refreshingly simple. "My preparation isn't very scientific or regimented," he said. "I've just got a few cues that I use before each kick and that's it.

"The object is to put the ball between the sticks and that's it. Of course, there are always things that you're constantly developing and trying to improve, but there will never be a time when you're fully happy with your game."

O'Gara, who wins his 50th cap tomorrow, is a huge admirer of Wilkinson, who in the previous five Six Nations tournaments scored 319 points; two Irishmen, David Humphreys (189 points) and O'Gara (177), are second and third in the list. "I don't mean to be at all negative about Charlie Hodgson, but when I heard people putting him in the same bracket as Jonny I found that very hard to accept because of what Jonny has achieved," O'Gara said.

"He's been immaculate and now that he's not playing you realise quite how effective he has been for England. He's worth 15 points a game to them." While insisting he has "huge respect" for England, O'Gara sees tomorrow's match as simply "match three of a five-match campaign".

He added: "We've won the first two and if we can win again then it will be back to square one as we prepare for the next game. Five wins is our aim. It's not a question of being cocky. It's a measure of the optimism within the squad and I don't think it's exaggerated optimism. I'd like to think that if we get things right we can beat any opposition."

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