Monday 22 October 2018

Tony Ward: Johnny Sexton could become a truly great leader if he drops antics

 

Jonathan Sexton remonstrates with referee
Jonathan Sexton remonstrates with referee
Johnny Sexton’s reign as Leinster captain has got off to a dream start. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

After a sobering introduction to interprovincial rugby, Connacht's new head coach Andy Friend offered some realistic and honest words.

"We're a developing side and we now know where we sit," the Australian said after his side went down to Leinster at the Sportsground.

"We've the yardstick now of what makes a champion side."

Almost a year on since touching down on Munster soil, I think it is fair to say that Johann van Graan is in no doubt as to "the champion side" the southern province will be facing in Dublin in four days' time.

I have little doubt that Munster will put it up to Leinster in the Aviva and on an individual level I expect CJ Stander to erupt into action. For whatever reason he has been uncharacteristically quiet to date.

But back to the Sportsground where at least we managed to witness a contest. In terms of honest endeavour Connacht didn't play that badly and yet the 20-3, 17-points difference adequately reflects the gulf in class between the squads.

Under Friend, Connacht are a work in progress.

Fading

They are already closer to the Pat Lam era with the Kieran Keane phase, however short, fading fast.

It is a different type of possession game to the Lam blueprint but is easy on the eye with lots of energy in terms of support and off-loading.

I like what I see and believe that in time, along with Jack Carty's maturation, it will pay dividends.

Read more here:

The biggest issue against Leinster was multi-phase rugby yielding precious little in return.

On this occasion the creative edge was missing. Tom Farrell did well but Bundee Aki, unlike the previous week against Scarlets, wasn't mapped.

Unless the Connacht midfield fires, what is an extremely potent back-three of Matt Healy, Tiernan O'Halloran and Cian Kelleher (plus Niyi Adeolokun) matter little in terms of finishing.

In Johnny Sexton, Leinster have an astute captain but I wish he wasn't as argumentative as he is with the opposition and match officials in the white heat of battle.

But the bottom line is he is a superb tactical leader who is on top of his considerable game when directing operations.

Strip away the Owen Farrell antics and he could well take that leadership to another level.

Carty (below) will be better for this latest experience in direct opposition to Sexton because he still looks a potential Test shadow at a time when back-up is at a premium.

1489787.png
Connacht's Jack Carty. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

One player who did put his hand up for reselection was Josh van der Flier. Here was a traditional openside in the Fergus Slattery/Nigel Carr mould doing just that.

Whether the modern game will facilitate an out-and-out groundhog flanker of that ilk, I'm not so sure.

Joe Schmidt has quite a task when naming the back-row for the big November tests against the Pumas and the All Blacks?

Ultimately it will come down to balance and game-plan but much like Seán Cronin at hooker, I cannot think of a more likely game-changer in the back-row off the bench.

One final point on Saturday's Leinster showing - as we saw in the final games of consequence last season, defence wins titles and in that key respect the PRO14 and Champions Cup holders are at that pitch already.

Munster know the juggernaut coming their way next following the sad capitulation that was Ulster, albeit a very under-strength side, in Thomond.

Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell were outstanding. The man of the match is a subjective call but for me it was O'Mahony by a mile.

But here I would like to throw the spotlight on the halfbacks.

It was good to see Alby Mathewson wearing that red No 9 shirt.

He brought so much energy to the base of scrum, ruck and maul.

Duncan Williams and James Hart are competent scrum-halves but both have got sucked in by the disease sweeping through the position worldwide, whereby effectively another scrum is being created in broken play as the No 9 nurses the ball back into position by foot until he is ready to execute the mind-numbing box-kick.

It is becoming a blight on the game and it is time for World Rugby to act in terms of its instruction to referees. Seeing the ball at the base of a ruck in open air while the No 9 brushes his hair and applies the make-up is already way beyond a joke. And from a Munster perspective it is particularly so.

Conor Murray is the acknowledged master in the art of the high kick but he mixes it at a pace and with an efficiency appropriate to himself and to his first receiver.

It would be wrong to over-rate Mathewson on the basis of an hour's play against under-resourced opposition but the vibrancy being otherwise sucked out of Munster's game is there for all to see.

I'm all for the No 9 sharing the load but irrespective of changed times the scrum-half continues to be the key link between backs and forwards.

If Van Graan, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, as backs coach and a former full-back, cannot see the technical difference with Mathewson irrespective of the poor opposition last Saturday then there is a very real problem going forward.

As for Joey Carbery? Until he gets some high-intensity games under his belt (the next three weekends will feed into that) he continues to be a potentially very good out-half and ultimately that shadow No 10 to Sexton.

I read and listened to various assessments suggesting his "only blotch was a missed conversion off the tee". Not so.

The accuracy of goalkicking to date is proving a bonus, however out of hand his tactical kicking still lacks the conviction essential to an out-half at this level.

His distribution and running were again mesmeric leaving much done, but he still has plenty more to do.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport