Wednesday 25 April 2018

Alan Quinlan: Sexton primed to rescue Ireland's season and end the French renaissance

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
'The reunion of the Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton partnership is a blessing, not just because they are superior players to their opposite numbers but also because when Sexton is on the park, you feel Ireland's chances of winning are noticeably higher' Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

If you were employed as a number cruncher rather than an international rugby coach then you'd be looking at the Six Nations table this morning and applying fairly simple maths to the problem staring back up at you.

With three games of the Championship remaining, and Ireland lying two points adrift of leaders England, it's fairly clear what has to happen if the title is going to come back to the Aviva Stadium on March 18.

Defeat today isn't an option. Not after Murrayfield. And when you consider the damage England are likely to inflict on Italy tomorrow, the addition of a bonus point from either today's game, or the match at the Millennium Stadium, would make things so much easier for Ireland when England's chariots swing into Dublin next month.

The truth, though, is that neither Schmidt nor any of his players will even dare to think of bonus points. In the context of the Championship, they could certainly do with one, or alternatively, they could do with a Scottish favour when they go to Twickenham on the penultimate weekend of the Championship.

Yet the reality is that if you were to offer Schmidt the option of approaching the final day of the campaign with 14 points on the board, you can be guaranteed he'd take it.

As would I.

The Irish players share a light-hearted moment with Johnny Sexton as they wait for the team photograph to be taken at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
The Irish players share a light-hearted moment with Johnny Sexton as they wait for the team photograph to be taken at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Essentially, Ireland are staring at a quarter-final, semi-final and final scenario right now. If they were to be allow their focus to drift to fanciful ideas of bonus-point wins, then what happened in Edinburgh could recur today.

This is a better French side than we've seen for some time. Louis Picamoles has, thus far, been the stand-out player of the tournament and while their record against Ireland since 2011 has hardly been outstanding - six games, one win - the fact remains that their sole victory in that time-frame arrived in our last meeting 12 months ago.

Progress "Our confidence is back," Thomas Castaignede, the former French international said yesterday. "We played well against New Zealand and Australia in November, and then against England in the opening day of the Championship. But we lost. We need a big win. This is the biggest game France have had since the 2015 World Cup. If we beat Ireland, it would be a sign we are making progress."

Already those signs are visible to the rest of us. The French team who were beaten by 49 points at the 2015 World Cup are gone, dumped into history's dustbin, and the team that has replaced them are slowly going about the restoration of their status.

Admittedly, seven of their 12 games under Guy Noves' watch have ended in defeat, but all of those losses have been narrow ones. The All Blacks team who defeated them so heavily in October 2015, only scraped home by five points when they visited Paris in November. Australia, too, only beat France by two points in the autumn, while England, won by three. "You have to fear the French to a certain extent," said Ian Madigan earlier this week. "If you don't respect them, they're capable of hurting you. I know these players, I train with some of them every day of the week. They're seriously talented."

And under Noves they've clearly addressed some of the issues which plagued them for years. For starters, there is continuity in selection - a policy which was crazily absent not only under Philippe Saint-André's tenure but even further back, when Marc Lievremont was in charge.

Better again, this year for the first time in ages, the French have been able to rest all their players during the down weeks of the Six Nations championship, whereas in previous seasons, internationals returned to their clubs to play Top 14 games - a crazy scenario which didn't serve anyone any good.

So there is reason to be fearful today, although I am nowhere near as pessimistic as a friend I was talking to earlier this week who suggested - with a straight face - that the possibility remains that Ireland could end this season with four Championship defeats, something that hasn't happened since 1998.

"Well, it's possible," my friend said. "France have improved, Wales have lost just two of their last 11 matches at the Millennium Stadium and beat Ireland there two years ago, while England have won 16 out of 16."

His point was valid because if there is one thing that has been strikingly obvious in this year's Championship, it is the fact that little separates the five top teams. Scotland beat Ireland narrowly but just fell short in Paris. England are two from two - but had to come from behind each time. With the exception of Italy - the tournament has genuine depth.

And there is real depth in this France squad too. Under Noves, structure has returned to their game. You no longer see their players trying off-the-cuff stuff as much as they would have done under Saint-André, the kind of loose attacking strategy that simply doesn't work in today's structured international game. Impressively Noves has changed their mentality, fostered a togetherness and built a spirit.

So when you also consider that each of their players is immensely skilful with the ball in their hands and when you see the size of their pack, it's clear that they believe they can trouble Ireland in the tight.

Yet I'm not so sure they will succeed. When faced with a big pack, the glaringly obvious thing to do is move them around, build phase after phase of play, and shift the focal point of attack with a relentlessness that the heavies simply won't relish.

Quite simply, Ireland need to jealously protect their own ball today, and strive to get the balance right between playing for territory and attacking the French. In this regard, the reunion of the Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton partnership is a blessing, not just because they are superior players to their opposite numbers but also because when Sexton is on the park, you feel Ireland's chances of winning are noticeably higher.

Irrespective of the fine job Paddy Jackson has provided in Johnny's absence, with Sexton you get guaranteed leadership and big-game mentality. Think of the games Leinster and Ireland have won over the years when he was at the controls. Put it this way, it is unlikely they would have beaten the All Blacks in November had he not been on the field for the bulk of that match. Nor would Leinster have won the 2011 Heineken Cup final.

He doesn't have a flaw. He knows when to kick, when to pass and when to run threateningly into space. Opposition flankers frequently fail to second guess his motives.

Clearly, he'll seek to pressurise the French wingers today with some aerial bombs and while there is the worry that he is coming into this game cold, it's worth remembering that when he played in January for Leinster, firstly against Zebre, and then Montpellier, it was after a similar absence. And each time he was brilliant.

Of course doing it against Zebre is one thing and performing against the French is another - but even here Sexton has history - after he ended an enforced three-month absence in 2015 to turn it on against the French on his first day back at the office.

That was the day he was on the end of some rough treatment - and it wouldn't be a surprise if he came in for further grief again this evening. However, the presence of Nigel Owens as referee could be a key determinant in the result, as the Welshman has a good way of dealing with high-pressure situations and staying in control even when players are threatening to go over the edge.

All of which has me convinced that Ireland are going to win today. Not by much, mind you, but with a sizeable enough gap to further erase the memories of Murrayfield and to re-apply the pressure on the English. Should Sexton stay fit, my expectation is that we'll be heading into the final game of the season with the Championship still there to be won.

Irish Independent

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