England's rugby players did not exactly burst into tears when the Irish bulldozers descended on Lansdowne Road a couple of years back, for the very good reason that Ronan O'Gara, the one man who truly understood the difficult terrain and peculiar wind-shifts unique to the rickety old stadium in the heart of Dublin's fair city, would no longer be able to kick them to a living death every two years. The poor fools. Did it not dawn on them that O'Gara would be even more lethal at Croke Park, the fall-back venue on the other side of the Liffey?
On a brutal night in February 2007, the outside-half from Munster kicked 21 points – three conversions, five penalties – in guiding Ireland to a record victory over the English, who really should have seen it coming. Why? Because they had been warned. "At Lansdowne Road, the wind can blow in four different directions," one of O'Gara's closest collaborators said before the match. "Since we've been practising at Croke Park, there has been no wind at all. Conditions there are perfect."
These words were spoken by Mark Tainton, who has been O'Gara's kicking coach for well over six years and has watched him rise to seventh in the all-time list of Test scorers, with power to add. (O'Gara is fast closing in on the 900-point mark and will almost certainly get to four figures – not, perhaps, against England today, poor as the opposition are, but at some point in before the end of the 2010 Six Nations).
"I'm not a massive statto, but I'd say Ronan's success rate in international rugby has been up around 80 per cent for the last four or five years, which is very high indeed," Tainton said this week. "I know we're talking about a relatively small number of games, but they're incredibly intense games where mistakes are more likely to occur. Of course, he's right up there in Heineken Cup rugby, too. I wouldn't say he's nerveless – everyone suffers from nerves, no matter how hard they try to disguise it – but he's very strong in the mind. Unless the outside elements are really extreme, he expects a good return from his kicking."
But didn't O'Gara (right) once have a reputation as a choker? Missed penalties and fluffed tackles cost Munster in two Heineken Cup finals, against Northampton in 2000 and against Leicester in 2002. Is he really as tough as all that? "I think 'choker' is very harsh," Tainton replied. "What he's done during our time together is buy into a process that gives him enormous confidence. He's worked hard, it's the knowledge that he's put in the work that gives him his belief. Just at the moment, I can't think of an outside-half who can close out a game like Ronan."
Kicking coaches are nothing new: Dave Alred, who performed the role with England during the Woodward era and is back on the Rugby Football Union payroll at the behest of Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Cipriani, was blinding outside-halves with science at Bath more than two decades ago. Yet it remains a rather mysterious cog in the back-room wheel. Neil Jenkins, one of the very small number of people still ahead of O'Gara in the Test points list, has carved out a niche for himself in Wales; Jon Callard is a specialist technician with England. These aside, there are not many around.
Tainton, who won England youth honours and played for his native Bristol – he still lives in the city, hopping aboard the commuter flight to Dublin every week to run sessions with kickers from all four provincial teams – was effectively head-hunted for his current role. "I was doing some work with Bristol when Dean Ryan was head coach, and we went on a pre-season trip to Ireland. After the Munster game, I was asked if I might consider helping Ronan, so we met up on this side of the water. We hit it off well enough, and the feedback he gave was positive. Within a year, I was working with Ireland, as well as Munster."
It has been productive partnership – every bit as productive, it might be argued, as the infinitely more celebrated one between Wilkinson and Alred. The differences in style are easily lost in the mists of biomechanics and the dark corners of psychobabble, but Tainton believes he has developed an approach that suits his principal customer.
"There's no getting away from the fact that kicking is a repetitive exercise: what I call a 'closed skill'. Unless there's some really shitty weather about to interfere with things, it's just the kicker and the ball and the process. The thing about Ronan – about all successful kickers, really – is that he puts the hours in. In Test week, Wednesday is down day, the day when everyone gets a rest. Everyone except us. It's our biggest kicking day. Physically, the intensity is low. Mentally, it's tough – a good 90 minutes of targets and angles, of covering all the necessary ground.
"The perfect session doesn't exist, but if he's kicked the first 30 and is feeling comfortable, I tend to say 'let's forget the last 20 and get something to eat'. If, on the other hand, he's having a rough time of it with the early kicks, we'll start again with some short-range shots from the middle of the pitch, work round the angles and distances and get back in the flow."
And if things go wrong on match day, when Tainton is as helpless as the average Joe in the cheap seats? "I'll get a message down to him somehow," he replied. "We have some 'trigger' words and phrases that we've agreed between us and we use to address particular issues. One of them is 'stay tall'. It might not mean much to anyone else, but it gives Ronan a firm idea of why things aren't happening and what adjustments he should make."
O'Gara has been standing tall against England for years now. If his performance today is anything like the one delivered at the same venue two years ago, the visitors will find themselves up against a giant.
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*Ronan O'Gara is the leading points-scorer in the Six Nations with 469 points in 34 games, giving him an average of 13.79 points per match.
1. Ronan O'Gara (Ireland) 469
2. Jonny Wilkinson (England) 419
3. Stephen Jones (Wales) 359Reuse content