Saturday 21 September 2019

Tony Ward: Time for Sexton to start playing with smile on his face

'My concern with Johnny relates to his on-field demeanour and by that I mean the lack of enjoyment he appears to get from the game.' Photo: Sportsfile
'My concern with Johnny relates to his on-field demeanour and by that I mean the lack of enjoyment he appears to get from the game.' Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The solstice might be a couple of months away but winter, in a rugby context, can't come quickly enough. For me, October has always been the month when the real stuff begins and the rugby season really kicks into gear.

In my time, the third or fourth Sunday in September represented the cut-off point between Gaelic games and both soccer and rugby bearing in mind that the League of Ireland ran parallel with rugby as a winter sport back then.

Today that cut-off is even more pronounced. We are already five matches into the new Guinness Pro14 but aside from the novelty factor of a South African presence, there has been little to stir the emotions. Even the Glasgow/Munster clash fell way short of what we can expect when these two square up later on.

Early signs point to the Cheetahs having settled in, with the Southern Kings yet to rattle a cage. They will in time, though rugby in the Orange Free State has always had it in history and tradition over Eastern Province but the least the Port Elizabeth franchise deserves is time.

And, whisper it, could the Conor O'Shea/Steve Aboud/Michael Bradley revolution be under way? The early signs from Zebre and Treviso are quite positive and the Pro14 needs meaningful Italian opposition even more than the best of Italy needs us.

From an Irish perspective, they don't get much bigger than Ulster fronting up to Connacht in the Kingspan on a Friday night followed by Leinster and Munster meeting in the Aviva on Saturday.

This continues the most tribal and best-supported battle in world rugby. It also defines the kick-off to the real rugby season here.

The four weekends in October will deliver interpro fixtures at either end with European matches in between. All of which should really whet the appetite for the November internationals.

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Meanwhile, Munster delivered last weekend; Ulster didn't; Leinster limped over the line and, while Connacht didn't their performance, along with that Munster second 40 in Limerick, represented the best of round five.

In all four games, my focus was on the wearer of the No 10 shirt. Johnny Sexton remains our top out-half and obviously, if injury-free, will line out in that position against South Africa and Argentina. I don't think he warranted the man of the match gong against Edinburgh but I've often been in that position of having to pick the so-called outstanding player (I hate the concept) when no one stands out so we'll forgive Reggie Corrigan on this one.

No, my concern with Johnny relates to his on-field demeanour and by that I mean the lack of enjoyment he appears to get from the game. I don't accept the on-field scowl comes with the territory. Watch Beauden Barrett sometime for confirmation of that.

A captain's role is to lead by example and also to encourage others. The perception beyond the white lines is of a 'whatever it takes winner' but for team-mates, particularly younger players, it is imperative that the skipper is at all times approachable.

Sometimes I wish Johnny would loosen up a little. On a personal level, I like him a lot but smiling on occasion (and I was as serious on the pitch as the best of them) is not a sign of weakness.

On the contrary, it will endear him to his team-mates and, dare I suggest, to match officials. Small margins and all that.

For Munster, Ian Keatley delivered a masterclass in out-half play. Even at his best for Connacht, I cannot recall a more complete game-running performance. I have said it here before that Keatley is to Munster what Paul Warwick was to the province in times past.

Yes, he has the odd blip but the pros far outweigh the cons and he never complains whether asked to wear 10, 15 or 22. And while I suspect I am in the minority on this one, I see nothing between Keatley and Tyler Bleyendaal.

Alongside Conor Murray the Munster halves were superb with John Ryan, Robin Copeland (another much under-rated performer) and CJ Stander the pick of the pack in a win as substantial as the scoreline suggests, although the shooter element to line speed in defence does need adjustment.

For Connacht (who again were so easy on the eye - keep at it, Kieran), Jack Carty simply has to nail those kicks. He has all the bits to succeed AJ MacGinty but as of yet the Sale Shark has still to be fully replaced.

For Ulster, despite early promise from Christian Lealiifano, the issue is in replacing Paddy Jackson. On Saturday's showing, the jury remains out.

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