Saturday 24 February 2018

George Hook: Sexton the answer to soft-centre problems

Jonathan Sexton in action against South Africa
Jonathan Sexton in action against South Africa
George Hook

George Hook

Ireland went down to South Africa and extended their losing streak, which, on the evidence of the games in Dublin and Cardiff, will extend still further when Argentina come to town in two weeks.

In an after-match interview, captain Jamie Heaslip was asked could Ireland, indeed, should Ireland have won. Heaslip confessed bemusement until, he said, he had studied the video. In truth the answer, video or not, was 'no' and 'no' as Ireland flattered to deceive for 40 minutes.

In the first half the Springboks were simply awful, predicated on an anonymous performance by Pat Lambie (four out of 10) at fly-half. It was exacerbated by the visitors conceding penalties at a ratio of three to one.

Lambie's kicking from the hand and at the restarts was abysmal and he lacked all semblance of control.

Meanwhile, the penalty count handed Ireland either the ball or points with regular monotony and the home side looked to be in with a chance of a famous victory.

In the second half the Boks tightened their discipline and refused to give the ball to Lambie, preferring instead to maul or let Ruan Pienaar offload to his centres to crash upfield and set up further driving mauls.

After the game much was made of the respective scoring performances when JP Pietersen (6/10) and Jamie Heaslip (5/10) were in the sin-bin. The reality was that Ireland never looked like scoring a try. The back play was too lateral and too deep and Keith Earls (3/10) had a stinker.

When are the 'powers that be' going to realise that he is a wing and only a wing? He does not defend, pass or make decisions like a centre. His colleague Gordon D'Arcy (6/10) carried well because of his strong leg-drive, but he no longer has the pace or skills to threaten even average Test opponents.

Heaslip will be disappointed at his yellow card, but instead he should focus on his own game where he was peripheral to the action.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe was a hugely influential figure. Sadly Ireland's No 8 has not delivered a top-drawer performance in two years. Giving him the captaincy was a mistake as the young man has his own demons to fix before he can concentrate on the problems of his team-mates.

Peter O'Mahony (5/10) and Chris Henry (6/10) started well when the South African game plan was a mess. However, as the pressure mounted, they found it difficult to stay competitive. Ireland's problem is that they have a proliferation of blindside flankers, while a real openside remains elusive. In truth, the best blindsides were in the second-row, where Mike McCarthy (8/10) gave a towering performance around the field and Donnacha Ryan (7/10) was not far behind.

The problem is that in the front-rank countries they would be competing for the No 6 shirt instead of filling a gap in the second-row. In that regard they will not be totally happy with their line-out work as too many balls were lost primarily through inefficient throwing. Sean Cronin, while substituting for Richardt Strauss (7/10), showed that he has not improved a whit since last year. Strauss fully justified his selection, but even he was not blameless with the throw either.

The big worry is the form of Mike Ross, who has had a free ride from the critics since he appeared to be the only tight-head in the land. Yesterday he had an easy day at the office against the ageing CJ van der Linde, but he caved in once Heinke van der Merwe joined the action. Declan Kidney took his courage in his hands and replaced him with controversial Michael Bent. The good news is that Bent may actually be the real thing. He has a good body position, a strong right arm position and sound foot positions.


Behind the pack, Conor Murray (5/10) defied my dire predictions, but had a very average match in some key areas. His box-kicking was awful; either going to touch or too far for the chasing players. And he continues to pick the ball up and look before making a decision. In a cameo performance, Eoin Reddan showed what quick delivery does for a backline.

The Simon Zebo (6/10) experiment was not a failure, but could hardly be described as a success. The neophyte was never tested by Lambie and capably dealt with most kicks. However, in the key role of a strike-runner, he never threatened and like the rest of colleagues ran across the field deep behind the gain-line.

Ronan O'Gara made his now traditional late entry to the fray to add to his tally of caps but little else. Yet with Jonathan Sexton (7/10) outside him, the backline ran with some purpose for the first time in the game.

Brian O'Driscoll is a long-term absentee and D'Arcy is in decline. Why not a midfield of O'Gara, Sexton and Fergus McFadden? Sexton is the Irish fly-half, but in the interest of stopping the rot, a short term solution could be a move one place out. It was not a problem for Mike Gibson why should it be for Jonny Sexton?

Otherwise look out for squalls when the Pumas come to town.

Irish Independent

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