Thursday 17 October 2019

Tony Ward: 'Leinster with Sexton and without are two different beasts - but they still have enough to beat Toulouse'

Ross Byrne will start instead of the injured Johnny Sexton against Toulouse. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ross Byrne will start instead of the injured Johnny Sexton against Toulouse. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In terms of winning silverware and matches of consequence, Leinster with and Leinster without Johnny Sexton are two different animals.

Take the World Player of the Year in any position out of any team and they will struggle to replace him.

Does that mean that Leinster can’t win without Sexton? Of course not. But is he irreplaceable? I think it fair to say that the jury remains out, although letting Joey Carbery go to Munster was a smart move for all parties involved.

More relevantly I like what I’m seeing through Ross Byrne and Ciaran Frawley. Harry Byrne too, and his time will come.

But in the context of this competitive season and where we are now at, opportunity knocks for Byrne the elder to step up to the plate and assume control.

To compare and contrast Sexton with Ronan O’Gara would be an exercise in futility.

What both possessed in the pivotal position was control and, however much the game might change, the out-half remains the quarterback.

The role of the pivotal playmaker cannot be understated. Forget all this nonsense about 'first receiver', the nature of the game makes the No 10 the focal point and short of redesigning the game’s structure, that will never change.

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Even before the summer business was done, Byrne was the accepted cover at out-half from within.

So when Stuart Lancaster declares that he has "no doubt about Ross Byrne running the show" and qualifies it further by saying "for me he is the most-improved player in the last 12 months here and he fully deserved his call-up to the Ireland team", you know that he means it.

"He has benefited from sitting underneath Johnny for three years and I can’t give him enough credit. He’s a leader. His kicking game is proficient. He’s ready."

Lancaster is best-placed of almost anyone to know given he works with him almost every day on the training pitch at Belfield.

Based on the composed and almost seamless manner with which he steps in for Sexton, whether mid-match or in its entirety, I echo the sentiments expressed.

He doesn’t yet take the ball to the tackle line with Sexton-like conviction but that can be added through experience and confidence.

As an out-and-out tactical kicker, he is second only to Sexton and still ahead of Carbery.

He won’t be able to rest on his laurels when Sexton is out of commission or away on Ireland’s call as Frawley is also beginning to make his own shapes at the higher level.

All three – Sexton, Byrne and Frawley – are tall, around 6ft 2ins or 6ft 3ins, – with Frawley equally at home at centre or full-back.

He had a loose pass intercepted in Limerick when chasing the game but that comes with the territory of his Carbery-like adventurous streak.

There is no better buachaill than Joe (Schmidt) to curb that urge at the highest level but for me such innate desire smacks of asset, not liability.

As of now he is third choice and when replacing like for like, Byrne for Sexton is the most logical way to go.

For the Six Nations a similar call will have to be made (as to the shadow 10 for Sexton) and the most logical way of thinking is if you have to chase the game, Carbery is ahead of Byrne as back-up.

To that end the next fortnight for Carbery and perhaps more particularly for Byrne, is vital.

These final two European pool games equal knockout in all but name.

And while obviously I would have preferred had Leinster won at Toulouse in October, it is good for the Champions Cup and good for French rugby to have Toulouse back at the top table and playing the game the way this aristocratic club has always played it.

Toulouse is everything that Toulon is not.

The three titles bought by Toulon between 2013 and 2015 see them with just one less than their Top 14 rivals. Where is the justice in that?

Toulouse, in good times and bad, have treated this great competition with the respect it deserves.

They are now back in the mix and will turn up with all guns blazing.

And they will need to be at their best because this Leinster squad are the real deal irrespective of the disappointing result and attitude in Thomond Park.

Injuries – long term and short – to Robbie Henshaw and Sexton sees opportunity knock for Byrne, and possibly Conor O’Brien too.

The Mullingar centre had another impressive outing against Ulster last weekend with his comment in the aftermath, when receiving the man-of-the-match award, helping restore my faith in the complex minefield that midfield has become.

As someone still involved in the underage game, albeit in an advisory capacity, it drives me to despair when I hear young centres describe their preferred position with the preface 'inside' or 'outside'.

According to O’Brien, he has "never really classed myself as a 12 or 13, I can play either and am equally as comfortable in both positions."

That was music to my ears. In an ideal world, the speedster will be on the outside (guarding that centre/wing channel) with the better footballer that bit closer to the action and his out-half.

Midfield combinations should be determined by chemistry. Gordon D’Arcy was probably the best full-back in Leinster School Cup history. However, his shift in position was not to 13 but to 12 because of the near-telepathic relationship it spawned between himself and Brian O’Driscoll. To this day that was the best we’ve ever had.

So with Garry Ringrose already assuming the mantle of the leader he was destined to be, and in the absence of Sexton and Henshaw, take any two from Ross Byrne or Frawley at 10, and from Conor O’Brien, Noel Reid or Rory O’Loughlin at 12, and it makes for an impressive alternative.

I take Leinster to get back on the winning track in Europe.

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