Sunday 20 October 2019

Des Berry: 'Schmidt goes all in on Sexton captaincy - and it could signal big changes to the Ireland team'

Jonathan Sexton, left, and head coach Joe Schmidt during an Ireland Rugby press conference in the Sheraton Hotel & Towers Kobe, in Kobe Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton, left, and head coach Joe Schmidt during an Ireland Rugby press conference in the Sheraton Hotel & Towers Kobe, in Kobe Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Des Berry

The Ireland chain of command has always been Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony and Jonathan Sexton, in that particular order.

On Joe Schmidt’s watch, there has been the impression and the history of selection that the Munster captain was next in line to the throne should Best not make it to the battlefield.

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Now, coach Joe Schmidt has opted to hand the responsibility, or honour, over to Sexton, his most trusted soldier, his best player. 

Of course, this is more a job for the politician than the militant.

Presumably, that is why Sexton was only crowned captain at Leinster in August of 2018 at the age of 33.

Even then, at times last season, Sexton admitted to having teething problems in the finer points of the role. 

The combustible character is as passionate about the injustices that take place on the field of play as he is about the pursuit of the points that lead to victory.

That has led to multiple occasions when Sexton has remonstrated with referees and, arguably, his team has suffered for bypassing the chain of command. 

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At 34, the out-half will become Ireland’s 106 captain on the occasion of his 86th cap.

In contrast, O’Mahony first led Ireland out on the 2013 summer tour to North America.

One month later, the loose forward was awarded the Munster captaincy for the season. He was 23 years young.

There was the trust placed in O’Mahony by Warren Gatland to lead the British & Irish Lions against New Zealand for the first test in 2017.

When Best was unable to travel to Australia in 2018, O’Mahony took on the mantle of the captaincy in the historic 2-1 series win, Ireland’s first there since 1979.

When the decisive third test between Ireland and the Wallabies was on a knife edge, captain O’Mahony was receiving treatment on the ground.

That moved the armband, the right of reply, and the right to engage with referee Pascal Gauzere, to Sexton.

A short discussion was underlined by Sexton’s undiplomatic approach.

"I’m the captain, so you have to talk to me. I know you hate me, but you have to talk to me," he told the Frenchman.

Referees dislike players telling them what they have to do just about as much as Sexton hates being told what to do.

Could it be that Schmidt has seen how that other fiery character Owen Farrell has embraced the responsibility for England?

Sexton and Farrell are seen as brothers in mind, body and soul in that they give everything of themselves to all of their causes.

The all-consuming will-to-win has led from contretemps with officials, to debatable tackle technique, to being a target for opposition hitmen. 

The England captaincy has smoothed away some of the edges to Farrell’s game.

Maybe, Schmidt sees Sexton as another all-in option where the last lap of his Ireland tenure enables the coach to think only of tomorrow and not the thereafter.

Could it be that O’Mahony’s place is far from certain for Samoa and beyond?

The indiscipline of the Corkman was not down to anything new in his game.

The flanker always has a tendency to drop his elbows to the floor in the act of poaching ball.

Like all the smart ones, he has gotten away with it more often than he has not. Just not last Saturday.

He was also the only forward to miss two tackles.

That other natural leader Rhys Ruddock will pack down at blindside against Russia with O’Mahony on the openside.

The greater power the Leinster man has might just tempt Schmidt to have a rethink at six.   

Could it even be that Best’s ownership of the number two shirt is up for grabs?

The hooker’s too-low throw to Iain Henderson when Ireland were threatening from an attacking lineout was one of those turning moments in the Ecopa Stadium.

Even so, the deficit in leadership shown against Japan has led Schmidt to Sexton.

At least for Russia.

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