Saturday 27 May 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Savvy Sexton reminds us what we've been missing

Johnny Sexton celebrates after kicking a drop goal against France yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton celebrates after kicking a drop goal against France yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

He hasn't gone away you know. With 27 minutes gone at the Aviva and France having moved into a 6-0 lead while looking ominously comfortable, Ireland's Six Nations campaign sparked into life.

Johnny Sexton looped around Garry Ringrose, took a beautiful pass and galloped into the great wide open before putting a perfectly judged chip which led to a five-metre scrum. Two minutes later, Conor Murray was burrowing over the line for a try which Sexton converted to give Ireland a lead they never looked like relinquishing.

There were many admirable features to this Ireland performance, Seán O'Brien's recovery of the titanic form of old, Murray looking every inch the best scrum-half in the Six Nations and maybe even further afield, the constant threat posed by Ringrose with ball in hand, Robbie Henshaw's patented wrecking ball impersonation, the evergreen intelligence and industry of Jamie Heaslip and, above all, the sense of purpose and direction exuded by Ireland all evening.

Yet only the most ardent contrarian could deny that Sexton was the catalyst, for once and for all underlining the vast difference between Ireland with him and Ireland without him. Three minutes into the game he was running into French tackles with the blithe unconcern of a man who's never suffered an injury in his life. A minute after that he was hoisting a garryowen of such perfection it could have been used to illustrate the meaning of the word in some rugby dictionary.

Those two attributes, physicality and precision, defined the out-half's bravura performance. There had been worries about Sexton's ability to survive a gruelling contest against ruthless opposition. Survive it? He relished and seemed to thrive on the combative nature of the game. The garryowens continued, a source of torment for the French defenders on a greasy evening. There was the soaring drop goal which pushed the Irish lead out to ten points in the second half and, though nothing came of it in the end, the quick-tap penalty at the end of the first which nearly saw Ireland catch the French unawares and add a second try.

They say that you never know what you've got till it's gone and there can be a tendency for fans and pundits alike to over-praise missing players, absence making the heart grow a little bit too fond. But with Sexton you don't remember what we've got until he is back in the green and displays that invaluable attribute all the great players have in common, the ability to make those about them that bit better. In tandem with Murray he gave a masterclass in command and control.

The match was not pretty and it was not stylish but it marked the return of classic Schmidt-era efficiency. Earlier occurrences at Murrayfield told us that the Scottish defeat may not have been the disgrace it seemed at the time and also that Wales may not prove the challenge we anticipated. That winner-takes-all showdown against England looks like it's back on. With our top gun back in town, Ireland will have no fear.

For all the talk of a French revival the visitors' performance bore an uncanny resemblance to those they've given over the past four fruitless years. Once under pressure they descended into shapelessness and indiscipline. Similarly, talk about Guy Noves rekindling the old Gallic spirit of adventure is a bit previous. L'esprit might be willing but le corps is weak. The current French side's back play bears the same resemblance to that of their great sides as the Trabant did to the Mercedes. Yet they maintain the ability to make things physically uncomfortable for opponents. This was a Test match in the most literal sense. Any deficiency in hunger, focus or commitment would have been mercilessly disclosed. None was apparent on the Irish side.

Interesting home cameos abounded. Murray's box-kicking has never been as accurate and when one surgical strike rolled into touch a metre from the French line you could practically hear the knife being slipped into the ribs. At one stage in the first half Sexton and Ringrose combined to significant effect three times in the one move. There seems to be an understanding there which promises great things to come. An early Simon Zebo miscalculation when dealing with a long kick perhaps indicated why Joe Schmidt is reluctant to risk him at full-back, a couple of electrifying passages midway through the second half, where Zebo was at the centre of everything constructive Ireland did in the French half, showed why that chance is still worth taking. Devin Toner found his inner Mick O'Connell with one soaring, unsupported take of a French kick-off.

The heights of November were not reached. They did not need to be. But there was ample evidence that Ireland may well be the team they looked like then. The great work continues.

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