Sunday 22 October 2017

Sexton seeking home comfort

David Kelly

David Kelly

DuringG Ireland's Grand Slam season of 2009, Ronan O'Gara won his 90th cap against England at Croke Park, where he produced one of the worst kicking performances of his career.

"I was low and you have to feel that pain," he admitted afterwards.

Ironically, O'Gara nailed the crucial winning kick, only his second from six, but tight to the touchline, as if to remind himself that the dip in form was merely transitory.

Munster didn't have a game the following week, but still O'Gara sought out his coach Tony McGahan for comfort.

"Tony said to me to go out the next day and do what I always did," recalled O'Gara later. "The way he expressed it put me at ease, but it's important to hear that -- and to hear it from someone that you trust as well."

You can guarantee that Jonny Sexton will have been seeking some similarly words from his provincial coach Joe Schmidt as he prepares for tonight's crucial screen test against the Scarlets.

Sexton would not have been human had he not suffered a pang of suffering at the stunning manner in which his veteran rival has propelled himself unquestionably back into the spotlight as Ireland's No 1 out-half.

His pain will be entirely different to that endured by O'Gara in '09, but there will be stress enough on his shoulders, nonetheless, with increasing questioning of the manner in which the younger man has seemed to over-reach himself on international duty during this championship.

Whether that has been due to confusing Irish tactics or the inability of his green-shirted pack to dominate opponents with the readiness of his Leinster colleagues, is open to conjecture.

What is certain is that Sexton requires the urgent dart of confidence that could be provided by a week spent among the creature comforts of his familiar Leinster background.

One wonders whether Sexton will ignore invitations to kick territorially amid the familiar environs of the RDS, in contrast to recent Irish duty?

Certainly, with the eager exhortations of Schmidt encouraging him to regain the expression that will still make him so vital to Ireland's cause this year, Sexton is prepared to snatch the willing invitation generally proffered by Declan Kidney yesterday.

"Yeah, I think so," the coach confirmed. "Ronan had a good game two weeks ago ... the other fellas just go out and play the way they usually do, and just make it as difficult as possible.

"There'll be loads of fellas knocking on my door, looking for reasons, because that's what makes -- I don't know what the saying is -- a rising tide? That's what will bring everybody on."

It may help Sexton's cause that his chance to shine arrives against compatriots of Ireland's next Six Nations opponents.


And, ironically, the Scarlets feature a player -- Rhys Priestland -- who is also seeking to propel himself to the forefront of international affairs.

Priestland's path of progress may be more complicated, but the battle at '10' will be more keenly contested than usual.

Leo Cullen and Fergus McFadden, operating at 12, where he may have an international future, will also be hoping to impress the Ireland coaching staff, having been released from international camp to help Leinster build on last week's 30-5 victory over Benetton Treviso.

Isa Nacewa continues at full-back in a back three which also includes Dave Kearney and Niall Morris, while Scotland's Nathan Hines is included among the replacements alongside Old Belvedere back Daniel Riordan.

Scarlets give giant wing George North a second chance to impress Wales coach Warren Gatland following his impressive try-scoring display against Edinburgh last Thursday on his return from a shoulder surgery.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; N Morris, E O'Malley, F McFadden, D Kearney; J Sexton, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, S Wright, L Cullen capt, D Toner, K McLaughlin, D Ryan, R Ruddock. Reps: J Harris-Wright, J McGrath, S Shawe, N Hines, P Ryan, P O'Donohue, I Madigan, D Riordan.

SCARLETS -- D Newton; G North, R King, G Maule, J Ajuwa, R Priestland, T Knoyle; I Thomas (capt), R Lawrence, R Thomas, L Reed, A Shingler, R McCusker, J Turnbull, B Morgan. Reps: K Myhill, R Jones, S Gardiner, D Welch, J Edwards, G Davies, D Evans, N Reynolds.

REF -- A McPherson (SRU).

Leinster v Scarlets,

Live, TG4, 7.35

Irish Independent

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