Sunday 21 January 2018

Neil Francis: Metro have not gotten value for their money with Johnny Sexton

Lorenzetti's underachievers fail to utilise out-half's gifts when they needed him most

Racing-Metro's fly half Jonny Sexton passes the ball
Racing-Metro's fly half Jonny Sexton passes the ball
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The coulda-woulda-shoulda-didn't view taken by losing coaches, which permeated through the press in the early part of the week, has pretty much come to an end now. There is no substitute for victory.

You can embellish it by playing well and winning like Clermont did - it is certainly on Toulon's aspirational radar to do that. As for Leinster and Saracens, well let's just say that they are just happy to be there.

There was so much to digest from last weekend's action as usual the more interesting fables come from the losers.

Racing Metro should wear a big 'L' on their foreheads until the end of the season. Whether it means 'Loser' or 'Learner' is up to them. Their financial ambition doesn't necessarily get matched by what they produce on the field. It is true you have to admire the pluck and gritty audacity of Saracens, but they should be out of the competition.

As it is, three of the four English sides are out of the competition. Take a moment out to savour that. Now spell the word meritocracy and continue reading.

Read more: Madigan confident Leinster can end Toulon's European reign in Marseille

Jonathan Sexton and Tommy Bowe are two of the six Irish players chosen by Will Greenwood in his Six Nations Team of the Tournament
Jonathan Sexton and Tommy Bowe are two of the six Irish players chosen by Will Greenwood in his Six Nations Team of the Tournament

Jacky Lorenzetti spent a lot of that money acquiring Johnny Sexton. I have nothing but admiration for the playing qualities of the Irish out-half - he really is a superstar. The question though that has to be asked is whether Racing got value for their money.

Unless they win the Top 14 and are driven to it by a determined latter-season push by Sexton, then the answer is no. The player has been injured and unavailable for too much of his sojourn and while rugby is a team game the premium you pay for his services should in the tight matches be the difference between winning and losing.

Too often Sexton has not been on the pitch - not his fault - rugby is a contact sport. For me, and it is purely my opinion, he just doesn't look right still.

Sexton was ill before the Saracens game and it was decided that Maxime Machenaud would take the kicks. Sexton's value to the side would have been encapsulated in the way he would have negotiated his side's passage through against obdurate opponents in the last 10 minutes of a tricky game.

Sexton was substituted with about 10 to go for Mike Phillips. In one fell swoop, the IQ level on the pitch dropped by 50 per cent.

At this stage Racing should have been 20 points ahead instead of a tenuous two - the small matter of failing to touch the ball down over the try-line when you get over it. Juan Imhoff and Dimitri Szarzewski are to be executed at dawn for - well - not executing.

Racing were guilty of adapting the famous Matt O'Connor 'let's pretend we have a game plan and muddle our way through the game and hope we have enough points on the board by the time we stop playing'.

In fairness to Racing, they only stopped thinking and playing in the last 10 minutes. Leinster, true to the way they have been playing this season, stopped playing after 40 and stopped scoring after 50. The whole squad have to ask themselves what they were doing for the last 30 minutes of the Bath game.

Racing, without their play-master, lost their way but were kind of happy just to defend stoutly and hope Sarries didn't pull something out of the hat.

Ireland's Sean O'Brien and Jonathan Sexton celebrate with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship trophy
Ireland's Sean O'Brien and Jonathan Sexton celebrate with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship trophy

As the final minutes came into focus - Racing, without their general, committed hara-kiri. Nigel Owens is a fine referee and espouses and upholds the Corinthian values of rugby union. But teams who are leading by a narrow margin attempt to run down the clock and kill off the game by feeding the ball either side of the breakdown recycling it and going again. Every ruck in these clock-killing manoeuvres takes 30 seconds and eventually when time goes into red, you kick to touch.

Now you and I know that is not a gentleman's way to end a game - particularly if the team we support needs to get the ball back. Many times in his career Owens has pinged a side in the last few minutes for sealing off at the ruck - preventing fair competition at this phase.

The most recent occasion was when England were pounding at the door in the last few seconds of the England versus France game. Its true England had the ball but that's not the point. The most famous time it happened was when Ireland were just about to beat New Zealand for the first time ever and were running down the clock going left and right of the last breakdown - going nowhere - just killing the clock. Nigel wasn't having any of it and warned Ireland to stay on their feet - don't seal off the ruck.

Jack McGrath will tell you that Nigel is a man of his word. Ireland got pinged and New Zealand scored a try in injury-time from the penalty. The whole country still shares the sense of loss.

Racing got the warning and then sealed the next ruck as if Nigel wasn't even on the park. Penalty! Marcello Bosch nails it in injury-time and Racing are gone.

Roll back time by two minutes and imagine Johnny is still on the pitch. Sexton in two seconds would have seen what was going to happen and either would have taken the risk and flashed the ball to the wing which may have duped Owens into thinking that Racing were trying to play football instead of merely repositioning the point of attack while still killing the clock or he would have kicked for the corner, pressed and got everyone to keep the line - what could be better than snotting Chris Ashton in a tackle on the last play of the game. Johnny would have known what Owens' MO is at the end of the match and would not have let it happen.

Sexton was sitting on the stand in his coat and could only watch as his brainless team-mates fell into the trap. Play the ref, they say. For that minute or two of madness which cost the Parisian side dearly you would wonder did they feel that they got enough of Sexton's pitch-time nous. In his two seasons there I don't think Sexton played even a season's worth of fixtures.

He is home in June and I suspect Leinster will get far better pitch time value for him than Racing did. The Parisians have signed Dan Carter on a three-year deal on €1.5 million per annum.

Read more: McFadden hails Bath's Banahan after head scare

The French really do have this facility to compound things. I would be more certain of a pre-owned (I love that term) car that Honest John from the Ballymount Road sold to me on the never never than I would be of Dan Carter's reliability.

The New Zealander is probably the most talented and effective out-half I have seen but he is falling apart and has been injury-prone for the last four years and is now behind Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and probably Colin Slade in the All Black pecking order.

At 33 years of age and without an MOT, if I was Jacky Lorenzetti I would only give him a pay-for-play contract. Carter has a body like Trigger's brush and his advent will only be an exercise in frustration. It makes no sense to sign him and it will only tarnish the player's celestial veneer. There is a trick to the graceful exit - don't sign the contract.

Currently, Sexton is the best out-half in the world - his playing time has been truncated in the Top 14 and even with him playing at his best, Racing Metro were never going to be good enough to win the Heineken Cup or for that matter the Top 14.

Does Sexton return a better player? In my opinion the answer is no. I think he has improved as an international player under Joe Schmidt and he will improve Leinster immeasurably assuming they know what they are doing next year.

Racing would almost certainly give Clermont a better match than Sarries will in St Etienne but the man they really needed to be on the pitch at the vital moment was not there and the impatient build-up for Lorenzetti's domain and quest for money-bought success falls on its face again.

The comic seller has bought the best players and has the coach to get the best out of Toulon for the time being. The two French teams are unbackable in the semi-finals. Both of them however have to play outside their bear-pit home stadiums and from the evidence of what can happen in Paris, money can't protect you from fate or cruel luck.

Both coaches of the underdogs cannot rely on luck anymore and so the monied French teams will have to be unseated by the power of thought. Imagine!

Irish Independent

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