Wednesday 16 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Our second or seventh-choice out-half simply won't do. Sexton is required to save this campaign'

But the out-half needs to manage his body better, starting against Samoa on Saturday

Johnny Sexton. Photo: Adam Davy/PA
Johnny Sexton. Photo: Adam Davy/PA
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Ice hockey is a game that I never really got in to. I love the physical nature of it and when the Stanley Cup play-offs come round every year I will throw my eye over it.

When I first started watching ice hockey it was probably in the '80s. Wayne Gretzky played centre for the Edmonton Oilers. Thirty-two years after his retirement he still holds 61 NHL records. He has so many titles and so much silverware to his name that there is no point in listing them.

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He is still generally recognised as the greatest ice hockey player of all time. His scoring averages were truly phenomenal and will never, ever be beaten. On his day he was unplayable. It seemed every day was his day.

Over the course of the seasons whenever rival coaches played against the Oilers their primary stratagem was 'how do we deal with Gretzky?' It was a conundrum that would keep the coaches rolling in their beds at night.

Simple

Because ice hockey was an ultra-physical game, particularly in the '80s and '90s, it would be quite simple to take Gretzky out and several teams had a notion that they would introduce a few axe-murderers onto the ice with very little ability, take care of Gretzky and take their punishment in suspension.

Edmonton already had addressed this issue and Gretzky had a minder/enforcer called Marty McSorley.

McSorley was a long way from being even a moderately talented player but if anybody looked sideways at Gretzky he would make sure that they never walked off the ice of their own volition.

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When the Oilers' owner got embroiled in financial problems, he had to sell his most valuable asset to the fledgling Los Angeles Kings. When Gretzky heard about the trade he was initially reluctant but then accepted the harsh realities of sport and commerce.

The only request he made was that the unrated McSorley came with him as part of the trade. They were a double act and for a dozen years nobody got close to Gretzky and if they did they did so at a fearful cost. The idea of "stop Gretzky and you stop the Oilers" never really got that much traction and the great Canadian scored freely.

Johnny Sexton starts against Samoa this Saturday; if ever this World Cup has demonstrated anything to anybody it is that Ireland are rudderless without Sexton. "Stop Sexton and you stop Ireland."

His form, although fitful, would be more consistent if he got more game-time. That troublesome adductor muscle is interfering with Joe's great plan.

I always feel that professional athletes are easily capable of playing a full 80 and I would never take off my starting half-backs unless one or the other's performance had fallen off a cliff or if he was injured.

You can see on a regular basis the net result when Sexton is hauled ashore. Performance levels across the park fall off and the team inevitably lose their form and structure.

Over the years teams have targeted Sexton with success and in the modern game it is quite difficult for any form of retribution, lest you get done for retaliation by weak referees who are blind to see the original infraction.

Ireland don't have any McSorleys in their side but as we approach the Samoa game - which is also a huge outing for Robbie Henshaw - and a putative quarter-final against South Africa or New Zealand, you can be damn sure that Ireland's out-half will get some.

We know that Sexton never blinks when it comes to fulfilling his defensive duties but I am struggling to remember a time in a Test match of consequence where he isn't on the floor being attended by the medics from a situation that he should never really have been involved in. He really does have to be much smarter in the way he puts himself about. If he does not play in the big matches Ireland are gone.

The half-back situation has been complex. Sexton is Ireland's game-manager and most important player and he is our first-choice out-half.

Joey Carbery is No 2. Paddy Jackson should be No 3 but let's not go there. Ian Madigan has rescued his career with Bristol and is a far more mature player than he was four years ago when he left. Madigan should be our fourth-choice out-half. Ross Byrne, who has done brilliantly at Leinster but was unfortunate in having to play against England at Twickenham, is our fifth choice.

John Cooney, who has been the catalyst for a revival in Ulster, is a better pick as a scrum-half for the squad and he is a better out-half than Jack Carty who is our seventh-choice out-half.

Carty started against Japan and performed admirably for the first 20 minutes but when Ireland ran out of juice and the live ammunition started being fired in Fukuroi he neither had the stature, the smarts or the maturity to rescue a side that increasingly was playing on the back foot.

Joe Schmidt took him off and replaced him with a degree of uncertainty with Carbery. Carbery's body of work has been intermittent, primarily because he has spent a lot of the last two seasons on the injury table.

This season his CV has one highlight - that of coming in to finish the game against Scotland in Murrayfield where he put in an impressive 60 minutes of work. We guess that he will get another 20 minutes against Samoa but again we are not sure what his ankle will be like after 20 minutes against that lot.

If either come off in any way injured Ireland's ability to perform at the quarter-final stage will be severely disrupted.

Samoa are a physical side and their disciplinary record is not good and unfortunately I do not have a huge amount of confidence in referee Nick Berry's ability to stop some of the hits that will be coming Ireland's way. And most probably Sexton will receive a disproportionate amount of these.

Ireland, even with Sexton on the field, have become a little bit too predictable.

Figure

There is a sameness to Leinster and Ireland's mode of play in the last couple of years and the better sides have managed to figure them out.

Ireland have been overdoing the kick-pass and the cross-kick. When Sexton tries to work his trademark wraparound there seems to be a target on his back as all the defenders know exactly where he is going and they are even wise to the variations of this tactic. Ireland need to be a little bit more inventive here.

It is important that Ireland play with confidence and concentration on Saturday and that there is not another moving-statues performance. It is important that they play with purpose and intelligence and that they cut out the virus of these unenforced handling errors.

It is also imperative that they do not go through long periods without scoring; maybe even dropping back into the pocket and taking a drop goal to keep the scoreboard ticking over and not demonstrating how vulnerable they are when they eventually run out of ideas and revert to endless cycles of one-out runners until they make a mistake.

Ireland must rid themselves of the self-doubt and apprehension which has pock-marked their performances this year and the man with the antidote is Sexton.

There is a reason you are on the big dough Johnny - time to kick-start Ireland's challenge.

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