It remains to been seen whether it is a definitive changing of the guard for Ireland, but when the reigning Grand Slam champions of Europe take on the World Cup holders at Croke Park on Saturday, Ronan O'Gara will be kicking his heels on the bench rather than calling the shots on the field in the No 10 shirt.
For the first time in six years, since the days when Ulster's David Humphreys was snapping at his heels for selection, O'Gara has lost his position as Ireland's first-choice outside half. The 32-year-old Munsterman has been overtaken by Leinster's 24-year-old Jonathan Sexton – for the time being, at least.
The Sunday before last, O'Gara landed the last-gasp conversion that earned Ireland a 20-20 draw against Australia at Croke Park, but Sexton's impressive showing on his debut against Fiji at the Royal Dublin Showground last Saturday has swayed Ireland's head coach, Declan Kidney. Sexton kicked 16 points and produced an outstanding all-round performance in the 41-6 win against the Fijians and will now get the chance to show what he can do against the side O'Gara faced on the Lions tour.
"I know we have a world-class fly-half in Ronan O'Gara but I need to find out more about Jonathan Sexton," Kidney said at the team announcement in Dublin yesterday. "I thought Jonathan had a good game last weekend but, with respect, Fiji were short of a few players so it was difficult to read. I just need to find out more.
"I worked with Jonathan last year. We gave him a nod for the A-team and he answered a lot of questions. We just need to roll the team. I know we have Ronan and there will be disappointment that he's not playing but I can't play everybody all the time. Because I need to find things out, there's no right time and there's no wrong time I just decided to give Jonathan a go this time. He showed great maturity against Fiji and I wasn't surprised. Last year, when things weren't going well for him, he stuck at it.
"Ronan is disappointed but he's the perfect pro. He's taken it on the chin, Ronan being Ronan. He has continued training and contributed to the team exactly as he would normally. It doesn't matter that it was a difficult call. My job is to pick the team."
Sexton was the epitome of assurance against Fiji in the chief playmaker role. He was much the same at the business end of the Heineken Cup last season, stepping in for the injured Puma Felipe Contepomi and helping to guide Leinster to victory in the semi-final against Munster and against Leicester in the final at Murrayfield. Sadly, the same could not be said of O'Gara when it came to the crunch with the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in the summer.
His ill-judged challenge on Fourie Du Preez gave Springbok fly-half Morne Steyn the chance to settle the series with a long range last-minute penalty in the second test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. It was a rush of blood to a bandaged and somewhat dazed head that has continued to give O'Gara sleepless nights this season. When fit and available for selection, he has not been left out of a major international for Ireland since the World Cup pool game against Argentina in Adelaide in 2003.
The hope for Kidney is that Sexton can help to give the Springboks some cause for insomnia in Dublin this Saturday night. The Ireland coach has made six changes to the team that saw off Fiji, with Cian Healy, David Wallace, Donncha O'Callaghan, Tommy Bowe, Paddy Wallace and Tomas O'Leary all returning. Back-rower Denis Leamy has overcome an ankle injury and has been named as a replacement. Also on the bench is O'Gara's long-term half-back partner Peter Stringer, who has been given the nod as shadow scrum-half ahead of Eoin Reddan.
Asked whether the Springboks' losses to France, Leicester and Saracens had cranked up the pressure for Saturday's Test, Kidney said: "We're sort of lined up aren't we? This will be the last week of their season and we know we are a bit of a target. It would be a fine finish to their season, beating us on our own patch. They will be very motivated."
Ireland team v South Africa
Ireland team to play South Africa (Saturday, Croke Park, 2.30pm): R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (capt) (Leinster), P Wallace (Ulster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster); D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Buckley (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), R O'Gara (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster).Reuse content