Warm-up matches that are scheduled after squads have been picked are an odd case study. Consciously or subconsciously, players are aware that the dangers of potential injury far outweigh the dangers of potential poor performance – they’re already on the plane, so to speak.
Secondly, the age-old hierarchical question comes into play: what’s more important, a performance or a win? To me, in a match like the one just past, it’s the win. If you perform well, and don’t beat a not-outstandingly-good team like England on your home patch, it pretty much means that your good performance just isn’t all that good. On the other hand, if you don’t perform well and still win against a not-particularly-bad team like England at home, it shows that you can still get a result even when you’re not hitting your straps.
Even in light of the peculiar status of the match, some of captain Paul O’Connell’s decision-making was difficult to figure out. Ireland turned down several kickable shots at goal in order to go down the line, and then kicked other ones. There didn’t seem to particularly be any logic to the decisions: sometimes we took the points, other times we didn’t. Considering that we didn’t manage to score a try – and have only scored tries in one out of four of our warm-up internationals – and have a multi-record-holding place-kicker, opting for the kick at goal when it was there in front of us isn’t exactly rocket surgery.
Too often O’Connell’s captaincy throws up these random decisions. He’s a middle-jumper and lineout caller, and there might be a degree of ego in there: going to the line rather than for the sticks shows that you have confidence in your own line-out, but you don’t get the points just for winning the lineout. You still actually have to score a try. In some ways it’s an adventurous call, but if it doesn’t pay off and you don’t bag the points from it, it’s just the wrong call. We didn’t score a try against England, so it was the wrong call a number of times.
Would O’Connell be defending the decision to kick at goal if Ireland had beaten England by scoring seven penalties? I really, really doubt it. In general, a pragmatic approach to taking points where you can get them and punishing your opponents for their infringements is the best way to not just win matches but to reward your team for their efforts.
If, on the other hand, O’Gara isn’t happy taking place-kicks from outside the gimme box [the gimme box being defined by the opposition 22 and the opposition 10m line at each end, and the 15m tramline on each side] then he probably shouldn’t be the first-choice goalkicker anymore.