Brent Pope: 'Joe Schmidt needs to micro-manage Johnny Sexton's appearances from now on'
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Joe Schmidt has some tinkering to do before he announces his team to take on Italy in Rome next weekend.
Obviously, taking a longer term view to the World Cup, it is a rare enough opportunity to trial some players that have not been getting regular starts in the other games to date, and that automatically applies to those players that have made cameos off the bench in the first two Six Nations games.
Johnny Sexton should not be considered. Longer term, he is now a player that must be micro-managed by the Irish team.
Joey Carberry is a fantastic talent and a player that has gone to Munster and honed his game well. Carbery left Leinster as a bit of a hit-and-miss goal-kicker, only to re-emerge as a quality place-kicker with close to a 90pc strike rate.
Carbery’s ability to manage a team around the field has also improved with some serious starts for Munster.
But at the end of the day, Sexton is World Player of the Year for a reason, and his experience alone will be vital in Japan as Ireland seek to get past a quarter-final in the World Cup for the first time in the history of the competition.
Sexton admits that he is a huge fan of Tom Brady, the 41-year-old Super Bowl winning quarter-back with the New England Patriots.
Sexton admires Brady’s longevity, resilience and ability to keep playing at the highest level year after year.
But a quarter-back in American football is not like an out-half in rugby. In the American national game, you have a wall of 300-plus pound blockers and if they are doing their job correctly, they should keep Brady safe and fresh-faced.
Even if they are not, Brady still has a body protected with padding, tape and a helmet to reduce the head blows.
Sexton is brave, maybe too brave at times, and there is no doubt that opposition teams target him.
‘Get at Sexton and we can beat Ireland or Leinster’ - and while you hate to admit it, they are probably right. If they take the head off the serpent, the body will die.
Sexton is the link, the quarter-back, the Tom Brady of Irish rugby. I have heard it from heaps of players and coaches over recent years, and come the World Cup that is exactly what teams will do in every game – target Sexton.
The Ireland star, by his nature, wants to play every game, and that is admirable and brave. Given his lack of game-time this year and his slight drop-off in form, he probably needs to start against France and Wales but certainly not against Italy.
And after the Six Nations is over, he must pick enough games to give him form and fitness, but not enough to get injured. So Carbery starts.
Other players that might come into serious consideration are scrum-half Kieran Marmion, who started in the win against the All Blacks, and starts again this weekend for Connacht in the PRO14.
If Marmion plays well this weekend, he could be considered for the Italian game, even if he is still well short of a gallop.
Garry Ringrose will presumably be fit to resume in the centre, as will other players that are coming back from minor injuries or non-starters in other games.
But here’s the slight problem. Welsh coach Warren Gatland took a huge risk in playing what was considered a Welsh ‘B’ side against Italy, and their subsequent failure to get a bonus point could still come back to deny them a championship should they beat England and then lose to say Ireland in the last match.
Those possible outcomes would leave three teams on a single loss, with England to prevail with bonus points.
So if Schmidt believes the championship is gone, then he can probably risk a second-string starting team with a strong bench and, like Wales, hope that it’s still good enough to beat Italy.
The Italians will target Ireland, as they have to get a home win this year, and if Conor O’Shea senses that it’s a less than full-strength side, the game may be a slightly more difficult proposition that we might have first thought.
If I was Schmidt, I would be looking for three strong performances to finish the Championship and that would mean a positive run-out for some players needing more game time next week in Rome, followed by comprehensive wins against France and Wales, home and away.
To finish second in the championship would be a good result for Ireland in many ways. It would take a little edge off the expectation for the upcoming World Cup, it will have allowed Schmidt a closer look at some of his fringe players in serious games, and still allow the Irish camp to be in a confident mood going to Japan.
It’s all about the best management of your squad from now on in.