Doubts grow over Sexton as All Black clash looms
Published 25/10/2016 | 02:30
Another international window looms into view and once again a Johnny Sexton injury is at the centre of attention.
The Ireland out-half hates the fact that his injury profile is openly discussed at times like these, but there's no denying that the condition of his hamstring will dominate the discourse in the build-up to the clash with New Zealand on Saturday week.
If Sexton was fine, he would not have been taken off at half-time in Montpellier on Sunday. If Sexton was fine, he would have been kicking goals at the Altrad Stadium.
Leo Cullen insisted that he was simply managing his player and suggested that he had the long-term focus and November in mind when he made the decision, much to the chagrin of the player himself, who was "p***ed off" according to the coach.
The head coach also whipped Sean O'Brien off at the interval, but that was a more understandable decision.
The flanker had played just 40 minutes of 'A' team rugby since tearing his hamstring off the bone in February, and Cullen's decision to pick two back-rows on the bench indicated that O'Brien was always going to be withdrawn early.
That meant that Leinster had just two backs on their bench, and when Joey Carbery came on for Sexton it meant that flanker Dan Leavy was covering the outside back positions.
Cullen would hardly have picked that bench if he knew Sexton was only going to get through 40 minutes.
At the province's pre-game press conference, Isa Nacewa was asked if he was going to continue to kick at goal in Montpellier after taking the tee against Castres.
He could barely have been more definitive when he replied: "I won't be place kicking this weekend. When Johnny's back, Johnny goal-kicks".
Yet, when Luke Pearce handed Leinster their first kickable penalty midway through the first-half of Sunday's game it was the captain who stepped up.
Instinctively, the cameras panned to Sexton as in the Sky commentary box Luke Fitzgerald said: "It's in very kickable range, I'd be expecting Johnny to have a go here and with his record in big games I'd expect it to go over."
As he finished his point, the No 10 was picked up on the ref-mic calling his skipper over and handed him the responsibility. Fitzgerald described it as "unusual".
Sexton had kicked in the warm-up, but for some reason didn't feel best-placed to knock over the kind of penalty he routinely dispatches in his sleep.
He did kick regularly from hand during his 40 minutes on the field, but his efforts lacked their customary accuracy and often went too far and, in one particularly damaging effort just after Montpellier's first try, skewed off his boot and handed the initiative back to the French side.
Given his hamstring injury hampered his ability to train, it was perhaps understandable that he wasn't at his best, but he was as committed as ever without the ball and contributed to the big defensive effort the visiting side put in.
Over the course of the 40 minutes, he had 19 possessions and kicked six times, making five tackles and missing none.
Although he declined the kicking tee, he never pulled up while running.
Yet it is unthinkable that a fully fit and firing Sexton would be withdrawn at half-time with the game in the balance, and Cullen explained that the Leinster management were mindful of his coming workload when making the call.
The out-half is Ireland's most important player and one of the IRFU's biggest earners. The clash with the All Blacks at Soldier Field is the biggest of Joe Schmidt's season and he needs all hands on deck.
Yet, the union's player management scheme normally doesn't affect European fare and Cullen said the decision was not pre-ordained.
When asked for clarity on the decision, Cullen spoke of the heavy pitch, the effect a 15-minute half-time rest might have and the challenges that lie ahead for his out-half.
"We are always cautious. We'll get everybody assessed as normal. He came through well and no-one likes coming off. We are not trying to be secretive in any way," he said.
Schmidt will be hoping that the decision to play Sexton has not done any damage to his playmaker.
Despite Paddy Jackson's encouraging performances in South Africa, the St Mary's man is still the key driver of standards in the Ireland set-up.
Depth at out-half is an issue, with Ian Madigan likely to be unavailable for the Chicago game given it falls outside the international window and Bordeaux-Begles host Stade Francais that weekend.
So, Schmidt will hope that the 11 days between now and the clash at Soldier Field will be enough for his main man to be fit and firing on all cylinders.
He is highly unlikely to be involved against Connacht on Saturday evening, meaning he'll have played just 40 minutes in the four weeks building up to the game against the world champions.
Unfortunately, it's an all-too familiar situation.