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Neil Francis column: Ireland's halves are a combination capable of propelling us to genuine World Cup contenders

This one is about the halves and have nots. I suppose a roll of honour is required to illuminate the role of half-backs when it comes to winning the big one:

David Kirk and Grant Fox 1987;

Nick Farr Jones and Michael Lynagh 1991;

Joost van der Westhuizen and Joel Stransky 1995;

George Gregan and Stephen Larkham 1999;

Matt Dawson and Jonny Wilkinson 2003;

Fourie du Preez and Butch James 2007;

Dan Carter and Jimmy Cowan 2011.


Handre Pollard drops to the bench for South Africa's clash with England

Handre Pollard drops to the bench for South Africa's clash with England

Getty Images

Handre Pollard drops to the bench for South Africa's clash with England

All of the above players evoke a response, but as rugby people we recognise them as being the best in their positions for their career span. Not only did they all play a central role in winning the World Cup for their nation, but the point observed is that if either or both had been missing their team would not have gone on to win the ultimate honour.

The more alert among you will realise that in the most recent World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, Dan Carter and Jimmy Cowan were the best half-back pairing when the tournament started but did not play in the knockout stages.

In fact, New Zealand had to play most of the final with Stephen Donald and Piri Weepu 'controlling' the game. If brains were chocolate, you wouldn't have enough to fill a Smartie. Donald and Weepu, the Morecombe and Wise of half-backs. If Carter and Cowan had been on the pitch the All Blacks would have walked their own tournament. As it was they just fell over the line ahead of France (8-7), courtesy of Craig Joubert's refereeing which was, in my view, shameful.

The point being that great teams look ordinary with poor half-backs and, as we look forward to next October, I feel the need to report that there are precious few good pairings out there at Test level, and on empirical evidence, Ireland have the best halves in the world at the moment.

As a player and now a spectator, watching clever halves boss a game is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth. This current Irish side have a pair that are humming at the moment. A Lions series-winning pairing and one that would undoubtedly start if there was a Test series next weekend.

Their excellence is below the threshold of conscious perception. People accept and expect them to perform to their abilities. How they came to be there doesn't seem to be a matter of importance. Murray and Sexton are here now and they have acquired the expertise and experience required to win another Six Nations and to go further than any Irish side has done in the Rugby World Cup 2015.

Conor Murray's rise to prominence was extraordinary. His national and provincial handlers fast-tracked him up the line and their prescience has been rewarded.

It was interesting to watch a 31-year-old Tomás O'Leary on Sky last week respond to questions about how good Murray is. O'Leary broke his ankle weeks before he was due to travel to South Africa on the Lions a month or so after winning a Grand Slam with Ireland. Ultimately, O'Leary never really fully recovered from that injury to reclaim his Munster spot and just as Peter Stringer had been usurped by O'Leary, now the Corkman had been supplanted by Murray. O'Leary, who is still young enough and good enough to play for Ireland, must look back at the last four years and wonder at how cruel sport can be. He must ponder too on how good Murray has become in the space of two or three years. Up until 2013 there was a valid argument for giving Eoin Reddan a shot but Murray has improved to the point where his calm demeanour and unhurried excellence underpin everything this Ireland side do.

In an age when box-kicking is nearly more important than passing for a scrumhalf, Murray is supremely accomplished at both. His rival last week, Francois Hougaard, paid a heavy price for a scatological display where his passing wore out the asbestos on the brake pads on the Springbok juggernaut. Ruan Pienaar is as important for South Africa as Murray is for Ireland.

At 25, Murray's biggest challenge is to retain that charter of consistent excellence all the way through to his 30s - a difficult ask. If I had a quibble it would be that he would augment his two tries in 30 caps.

Jonathan Sexton is the stand-out stand-off in Europe and has been since 2011. More than any other position on a rugby field, the modern outhalf needs the two most precious qualities of confidence and intelligence. If you want to be a good outhalf, talent is secondary because it requires confidence and intelligence to use that talent. Experience at Test level only comes if you have the requisite level of confidence and intelligence.

It is remarkable that Ireland's last two outhalves took a good while to get into their stride. David Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara took a season or two before you could class them as competent international players. You knew that both would eventually shine. You were never certain about where Sexton's career would go. In the season or two before Leinster's Heineken Cup win Sexton was understudy to Felipe Contepomi and after some indifferent performances was let off to play some club games for St Mary's in the AIL. This was for some a retrogressive step, but it seemed to stabilise and to a degree fortify him and his game blossomed a year on. Sexton's introduction for Contepomi in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park set him on his way. It would be uncharitable to say that the die was cast and Leinster were on a mission and were going to win that day no matter what. Contepomi was an important player for Leinster at that stage and it was a seminal moment to come on in such a huge match. Sexton could have frozen or underperformed. The fact is he took the weight and responsibility and wrote his name all over the occasion.

The sliding doors of fate were good to Sexton. In these situations you never look back, nor has he. He is academically smart as well as rugby smart. There are plenty of smart kids playing rugby - the key to progress in this position is not to over-analyse things. Sexton's instinct is almost always right. His talents and skill-set are obvious and need no qualifications from me. Quite apart from his grumpiness, which is an asset, the thing that stands out for me is his physical size - he is a big boy. This has significant advantages in the modern game. Defensively, he is sure against all types of ball carriers. Offensively, when your first receiver gets over the gain-line, everything is on.

Ireland are lucky to have him because his advent can be attributed more to happenstance rather than the system cultivating him from the moment he left school, certain that he would be a superstar.

I am not saying Ireland will win the World Cup, but I certainly think there are teams who will be classed as contenders but won't win because their halves just aren't good enough.

The hosts won't win with Danny Care and Owen Farrell. The French, our pool opponents, have had 12 different combinations at half-back - all found wanting - since Philippe Saint-André 'took over'. Our Celtic cousins? Finn Russell and Greg Laidlaw? Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb? Cheeky Charlies!

We get to see Australia's offering of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley next Saturday. Nick Farr and Michael Lynagh they are not. For the holders, Aaron Smith is a smashing bit of kit. Aaron Cruden is pretty decent too - it will have been interesting to see what Dan Carter got up to yesterday, but as always it will be important to see how they react when a team confronts them and puts it up to them. New Zealand half-backs are used to silver service, so it's always educational to see what happens when they get slops.

Ireland's halves pretty much led the way in their Championship win last season, in the All Black near miss and in last Saturday's very satisfying win. If they stay healthy, we could be looking at something special this next 12 months.

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