Sunday 25 June 2017

Sexton ready for extra pressure

Absence of Murray will be keenly felt by Irish side as Marmion steps in

Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Tomorrow, Jonathan Sexton will take to the dance-floor without his favourite partner Conor Murray.

A nation holds its breath.

Not, perhaps, in the same way they might should Ksenia sprain an ankle and scupper Dayl's chances beneath the glitterball of faux-reality TV.

No, this is far, far more important.

For nobody can be quite certain what might happen next, as even the head coach acknowledged, along with general deficiencies in Irish rugby's squad depth, on more than one occasion.

Familiarity has bred contentment for Sexton and Murray since they first sang sweetly in the rain beneath the weeping skies of the Yarrow Stadium two World Cup tournaments ago.

Johnny Sexton speaks to his team-mates during training. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton speaks to his team-mates during training. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Against France, they were re-united after Sexton's injury and they performed a perfect waltz, such that the French should have been put to the sword by their team-mates much sooner. Last Friday, like acne-ridden, hormone-fuelled teenagers, their relationship was on, off, then on again. Then off.

It was little surprise Ireland were, too, slumping to supine defeat, drowning in despair whenever their half-backs were marked absent.

Schmidt praised a last-ditch Kieran Marmion tackle on the immense Welsh figure of Ross Moriarty; yet his enamour for the player has not been such as to arm him with sufficient experience to fill the emergency vacancy.

"Conor's experience will leave a hole for us," said Schmidt, having elaborated at length on the qualities Ireland will lack without Murray, who he trusted more even during his temporary disability last Friday. "We've got a combined caps with Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath of about a dozen, as opposed to about 140 that they have in their half-backs."

Sexton must whirl with whomever he takes to the ball; Fred Astaire used to say that without Ginger Rogers, everyone else he danced with looked wrong.

This half-back partnership is unusual; the pressure is on Sexton to make it feel right. Unlike the crocked Murray, he is fit and able enough to shoulder the burden.

"Conor is a world-class scrum-half and we've built up a really strong relationship over the last few years," says Sexton of his prospective Lions associate.

Wounding

"He'd be a loss to any team in the world when he's at his best.

"But Kieran has been outstanding for Connacht and has had to bide his time. I thought he did really well in difficult circumstances last week against Wales and he'll be more confident for that effort.

"I'm sure he's looking forward to showing people what he can do now, and even today was really the first session we've had together but we got on well and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can bring. He's aggressive and he's a really competitive guy."

But they have only had an hour's practice; Murray trained the game on Tuesday before failing yesterday's fitness test.

It is noticeable that when one man is absent, the other assumes much greater control; Sexton is already detailed to perform so many duties, one wonders whether the pressure may prove too much, even for him.

"I feel pressure every game I play for Ireland and every game I play for Leinster because I put pressure on myself and guys around you put pressure on you," he says stridently.

"When you are vice-captain or captain you have got pressure automatically because you need to perform."

He is sporting a pied peeper; the injured left eye a legacy of the wounding Welsh who pinned him and sledged him and tackled him to the limit of legality.

In his absence, Ireland conceded points at an alarming rate; the binning, although technically legal, annoys him.

Every player, as the Welsh did, cheats to pin players on the floor; it just helps if it is either completely ignored by officials or else adjudicated upon at all times.

"We were warned before the game about tackling people not in the ruck or on the fringes of the ruck," he explains.

"It happened two or three times and it just went unnoticed even though we were told that we weren't allowed to do it, which again was another frustration.

"I don't mind getting sin-binned - I couldn't have done anything different when I got sin-binned - but then that has to happen if someone intentionally kills the ball.

"CJ makes a line-break then it should be the same. There are frustrations around that but again nothing we can control. We just have to try to keep improving and get a little of luck somewhere down the line."

Ireland would have hoped to be approaching England's level of consistency but have failed to do so.

Unbeaten

"They have equalled the All Blacks' unbeaten record. That speaks for itself. This team has been together for six years now. They are going for back-to-back Grand Slams.

"They have been through ups and downs and they are reaping the rewards of that from last season's Grand Slam all the way through to now.

"You've got to say that they're on a pedestal, especially consistency-wise. I think we can say we can beat these teams. We're going to have to be at our best,

"But we haven't come near to 18 wins in a row. That's what we need to aspire to be like. We can worry about that after Saturday."

Dan Biggar - or somebody with a Welsh accent - bade him a fond farewell to the naughty step; "Cheers Johnny boy, have a good day son."

"I don't know where the sledging thing came from. Someone said it to me. No-one sledged me. He texted me after the game and said he didn't."

There will be many words spoke tomorrow in the heat of fray; Sexton will hope to have the final one.

Irish Independent

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