Saturday 18 November 2017

No

At last week's Six Nations launch, it was put to Joe Schmidt that 18 months on from the Rugby World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina, Ireland are now in a position of real depth.

"I think in some positions (we do)," came his response.

"You always want more, because you're still two injuries away from being in a bit of trouble and there are still one or two positions where we're one injury away from having quite a big difference in experience and that's always a concern."

He wasn't about to name names, but Johnny Sexton's was sure to be in his mind as he took the question.

Paddy Jackson is growing his game as the seasons go on and is becoming more and more comfortable at the top level, but with 10 international starts to his name he still can't offer what Sexton brings to the table.

With 63 caps for Ireland and three Test starts for the Lions with 592 international points, the St Mary's man remains a world-leading out-half when fit.

The problem is that he is so often unable to play that both Ireland and Leinster are learning to cope without him.

Can Jackson lead Ireland to glory this spring? Sure, it's possible, but the surety of performance that exists when Sexton dons the No 10 jersey simply isn't there with the talented 25-year-old.

On Saturday, he returns to the venue where he made his international debut in 2013, parachuted in ahead of his time by Declan Kidney on a day he'll never forget no matter how hard he tries. The Jackson we'll see this weekend has taken all of the knocks of those early seasons and grown into the player who has long been earmarked as an international out-half and his CV is beginning to build with the scalps of South Africa and Australia now on the list of achievements.

When he took over from the again-injured Sexton in June, Jackson did well on tour but Rory Best has spoken of a lingering regret that Ireland left a Series win behind.

His fellow Ulsterman did little wrong, but had Sexton been fit enough to play a part then things might have been different when the final two Tests came down to the final moments.

People seem to forget just how good Sexton was in a struggling Ireland team last season, dragging them almost single-handed back into contention at Twickenham in particular as the game threatened to get ugly.

The young guns got much of the credit, but the out-half was his team's totem.

After securing his signature to return from Paris in 2015, the IRFU invested their hope that the Leinster man would lead this Irish team to the next World Cup. His contract ends in 2019, but his injury profile puts that prospect into doubt.

Instead, Jackson can build on his experience with high-pressure games in the northern hemisphere's toughest rugby environment.

All of this will stand to him in 2019, but if Ireland are targeting some silverware this season they'd have a far better chance if their No 1 man was fit.

The loss is further amplified by the absence of Jared Payne from the Ireland backline, while Andrew Trimble is also likely to be injured this weekend, robbing Schmidt of another experienced campaigner.

Burden

On the pitch, Sexton is Schmidt's eyes, ears and voice and when he and Payne are gone the burden on Conor Murray's shoulders to guide the group of young stars outside him grows.

There is a reason why Schmidt was willing to place his faith in his long-term on-field general despite him playing just 172 minutes of rugby since limping out of Ireland's loss to New Zealand on November 19.

For all of his woes, Sexton still remains the man and Ireland will be hoping that this troublesome calf injury won't keep him out for the whole tournament.

His injuries will continue to afford Jackson the opportunity to grow his game at the top level in rounds one and two, but when both are fit and available the choice is simple and if Sexton gets fit again, he'll come back into the team.

Without him, Ireland's prospects of winning at Murrayfield on Saturday have reduced and while the hope is he'll recover to play a part later in the tournament, his absence undermines their chances of getting to the visit of England to Dublin on March 18 unscathed.

Scotland greeted the news with public indifference, but privately they'll be delighted. News that he's out makes their lives easier and that can't be good for Ireland.

Irish Independent

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