Friday 17 January 2020

Tommy Conlan: We don't like to play the blame game, but it was all Johnny Sexton's fault

Sexton against New Zealand in 2013
Sexton against New Zealand in 2013
Johnny Sexton, missed penalty against the All Blacks three years ago was "a game changer". Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Three years ago there was no rush to judgement when Johnny Sexton missed the penalty that would almost certainly have beaten the All Blacks.

Maybe there should have been. It was a bread-and-butter job. It would have pushed out the Irish lead to eight points with five minutes remaining. It would probably have sealed Ireland's first ever win against New Zealand after 108 years and 28 Test matches.

Irelands Jonathan Sexton reacts after missing a kick in the 74th minute of the game.
Irelands Jonathan Sexton reacts after missing a kick in the 74th minute of the game.

And his team mates deserved it; they had earned it; they had been absolutely magnificent. The penalty itself was generated by a beast of a maul that had sent the All Blacks marching backwards. It was a play which declared that this Ireland team was not for turning. They were not interested in another heroic defeat. They were ready to go and win it.

Then Sexton missed the penalty. New Zealand's No 8 Kieran Read called it "a game changer. It kept us in the game.".

The sporting culture here and in the UK tends to protect a player who has made a pivotal mistake. It is a decent thing to do. It shows a level of compassion and empathy. And anyway, everyone already knows what happened; the player himself is all too painfully aware of it. No point in kicking a man when he's down.

But these good intentions can sometimes lead to a denial of basic truths too. The media in particular will often resort to evasive assertions and disingenuous euphemisms when covering up a player's manifest failings. This isn't necessarily healthy either. For fear of being seen as too harsh on someone, they will avoid saying what obviously needs to be said.

The mature approach is to neither make a scapegoat of the player in question, nor try to be too self-censoring either. Just say what happened and move on. Spell it out. Don't hang the player, but don't pretend it wasn't crucial.

They are a bit more straightforward about these things in US sport. Bruce Arians didn't beat around the bush when his player missed a simple kick at goal last Sunday night. Arians is head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. They were at home to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7 of the NFL. The game had finished 6-6. They don't like draws in America so it went into overtime. And overtime is sudden death: the first team to score wins the match.

Chandler Catanzaro is the Cardinals' specialist kicker. This one was a gimme: a 24-yard chip shot. He had already landed two field goals from 45 and 46 yards. This time he hit the post.

Unbelievably, the Seahawks then drove downfield and set up an opportunity for their kicker - only for him to miss too. Steven Hauschka shanked his effort completely; it sailed several yards wide. "I take full responsibility," he confessed.

At the end of overtime it was still 6-6. It was only the 21st drawn match since the NFL introduced its overtime rules in 1974. It was the first draw in Seattle's history. And they were happier with the outcome: Arizona needed the win more and they'd dominated the possession stats.

When the ball hit the post, Arians smashed his clipboard on the ground. A football helmet went flying too. Catanzaro trooped off and stood staring into space, alone with his stunned mind. At the post-match press conference Arians was asked what he'd said to Catanzaro in the locker room. His reply was cold and decisive. "Make it. He's a professional. This ain't high school. You get paid to make it."

Three years ago social media went into overdrive after the Ireland-All Blacks game. Dozens of observers, famous and obscure, commended the Irish performance, the New Zealand comeback, the game itself. Virtually everyone glossed over the delicate matter of the missed kick. Philip Jordan, the three-time All-Ireland medal winner with Tyrone, was one of the few who addressed it without flinching. "Massive effort from Ireland," he tweeted, "but (I'm) not a believer in heroic defeats. Sexton has to kick that penalty."

The out-half will have another tilt at the All Blacks next weekend. It probably won't happen again, but if he does get another chance to make the match-winning kick, we've no doubt he'll nail it this time. More likely though, the chance is gone, never to come again.

Unlike Sexton, Catanzaro had had to deal with a ferocious Seattle defence trying everything to hustle him out of his rhythm. His first field goal of the night, from 39 yards, had actually been deflected by a Seattle player who managed to hurdle over Arizona's line of scrimmage and get his hands to the ball.

With everything now riding on his kick in overtime, maybe this earlier incident wormed its way into his thought processes. Perhaps it messed with his head just enough to fractionally upset his technique.

"I know I make that kick 999,999 (times) out of a million," he said with a weary sigh. "I just missed it. It's a tough deal. Yeah. No excuse."

By Tuesday, Arians still wasn't ladling out the sympathy to his forlorn kicker. Asked if he was going to demote him, he replied: "No, the kicker just needs to kick it through the two poles." Asked if he still believed in Catanzaro, he replied with a flat "Yes." But he still wasn't exactly putting his arm around the player. "The field goal issue," he added, "you just can't miss that kick."

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