Sunday 17 February 2019

Johnny Sexton agrees with 'smart' Murray decision as he backs Marmion and McGrath to step up against All Blacks

10 November 2018; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
10 November 2018; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Johnny Sexton has backed Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath to step up and fill the void left by Conor Murray ahead of the ultimate test of Ireland’s credentials against New Zealand this weekend.

Joe Schmidt put speculation over a sooner-than-expected return from injury for his Lions scrum-half to bed this afternoon as he announced he would not be added to the squad for the remaining games.

The coach is also dealing with the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who will play no further part in the Guinness Series after pulling his hamstring in the warm-up before Saturday’s win over Argentina.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said on Sunday that he expected to see Murray in his starting XV, but Sexton reckons his regular international partner is right not to rush back

"I obviously stayed in touch with Conor a lot over the injury to see how he has been getting on and all the time (he's been) improving but I suppose he's just trying to make sure he can get it right from now and not be an issue going forward," Sexton said.

"It's probably a smart thing. It's a big ask. If you're out for a few weeks and you're asked to play the All Blacks, that's tough enough.

"But if you're out for the period of time he has been out for, it would be a big step in. Hopefully, we'll see him back soon, I'm not sure how soon but obviously a quality player, we'd hope to have him back...Munster or Ireland whenever he can."

Although Murray is undoubtedly a key player for the team, Sexton says playing alongside Marmion or McGrath will not alter the way Ireland play.

"Not too differently at all, to be perfectly honest," he said.

“Look, he's a world-class player and three guys behind him are chasing him but I think they did well at the weekend, 'Marms' and Luke.

"They'll be better for that experience as well. I think the more time you spend in the environment in here, the more comfortable you get and the better you get. I'm sure those guys will go a step ahead again this week."

Sexton admitted that Henshaw is a big loss to the team.

"Robbie has been a big part of the team over the last number of years and he's bounced back from various different injuries last year, memorably for Leinster in that (Champions Cup) semi-final against the Scarlets where he had such an incredible performance after being out for so long," he said.

"Look, I'm sure he'll bounce back quickly from it but he's obviously a loss. He's a loss for a lot of teams in the world and he'll be a loss for us this week. But the guys that are available will do a great job I'm sure."

Sexton has beaten the All Blacks twice in the last three years with Ireland and the Lions and he admitted that the date with the world champions has been high on his agenda.

"We've had it on our radar for a while, definitely," he said.

“You can't lie about it and say it's just another game. You get to play against these guys...I've only got to play against them under Joe for however long Joe has been in charge, three times.

"They've all been tough games, close games and they don't come along too often the way the seasons are structured now.

"We want to make the most of it and see where we are really. It has been two years since we've played them last but there has been a lot of changeover from our team.

"I think probably eight guys who played that day won't play this week so it's a big change from our point of view but we're looking forward to seeing how far we've come in two years and where we are in the world really."

After a stuttering performance against Argentina, Sexton reckons Ireland need to step things up in every department.

"A little bit of everything, wasn't there?" he said.

"There was probably bits in the set-piece from the forwards' point of view, bits in the backline D from our point of view, bits of not taking some opportunities we created. A couple of kicks who weren't great, a couple of passes that weren't... you know what I mean?

"All those things so it wasn't just one thing that sort of led...they (Argentina ) are a good side as well.

"They're one of the tier one nations now, they play against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia a lot.

"They play that real competitive rugby, they're together all year round and they were always going to be an incredibly tough game from our point of view.

"Maybe from your point of view it was meant to be different but we knew it was going to be a really tough game and it was.

"There were bits we didn't get perfect but to win against Argentina having had two sessions together, we'll take some positives and some good learnings."

As he brushed off Eddie Jones' comments about his treatment from referees last week, Sexton was more concerned about the team's capacity to stay on this week's referee Wayne Barnes' good side.

Something that hasn't always gone their way in the past.

"Look, we pride ourselves on our discipline. We are coached to be as disciplined as we can be," he said.

"We will look at a game and after the game we will get, not in trouble but it will be highlighted where we could have given away penalties.

"So our discipline, on a list of importance, is up there. We’ve come on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes in the past so it’s something we’re going to have to look at even more so this week.

"We try to play by the letter of the law but for whatever reason in certain games we haven’t got that right with him.

"So we really need to have a look at ourselves and see can we be extra vigilant there.

"We can’t be worried about them because that’s their problem. From our point of view we’ve been penalised a lot by him in the past, more so than any other ref  so we really need to be wary of our own discipline this week."

Competition: Independent.ie has two pairs of tickets to the sold out Ireland vs New Zealand game at the Aviva this Saturday. Enter here.

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