Saturday 17 February 2018

Brent Pope: Jonathan Sexton deserves a medal for bravery

Ireland's Johnny Sexton (centre) is consoled by England's Owen Farrell (right) at the end of the 2016 RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham
Ireland's Johnny Sexton (centre) is consoled by England's Owen Farrell (right) at the end of the 2016 RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham

Brent Pope

Irish rugby coach Joe Schmidt could feel a little aggrieved that a couple of key decisions late on in Twickenham went England’s way.

In the end the hosts probably deserved the victory after an impressive first-half display of brute force. Ireland stiffened up the scrum that had been such a problem against France with the inclusion of tight-head anchor Mike Ross, but Schmidt will have a serious look at Ireland’s lineout that malfunctioned far too many times.

He will also ponder Ireland’s lack of penetration and finish in the opposition 22. At times in the first half when Ireland had weathered a battering from England and managed to create some space of their own, their decision-making again let them down.

Ireland need to be more patient and take the correct option. Hopefully that will come with more experience.

Just when you thought Ireland must  be dead on their feet after being forced to make over four times as many tackles as the English players, they rose to fight on. Having survived a first-half battering, Ireland were somehow just three points down at the break.

They burst out of the blocks early in the second half, and when scrumhalf Conor Murray bludgeoned his way over close to the line after a strong leg drive from  flanker CJ Stander, Ireland actually had their noses ahead and England were starting to struggle  at least mentally, after squandering so many chances.

But then two quick English tries from winger Anthony Watson and fullback Mike Brown suggested that England might now go for the jugular. However, it was the Irish that fought back, first being denied a try by the impressive  Robbie Henshaw, when the big centre was bundled out inches from the line,  and then a controversial disallowed try by flanker Josh van der Flier that could and should have gone the other way.

Would Ireland have won from there? It’s hard to say, but with England down to 14 men at least Ireland would have been in a position to put some pressure on Eddie Jones’ men.

On balance it was a deserved English victory. Ireland’s scramble defence close to the line was heroic at times especially in the first period. Wave after wave of English attack, led by the English No 8 Billy Vunipola, seemed certain to eventually put Ireland away, but time and time again Ireland rallied.

No one did more for Ireland’s cause than outhalf Johnny Sexton, whose bravery alone deserved a medal. I counted  at least three occasions when Sexton used his intelligence to thwart what looked like a certain English score simply by rushing out and getting his hands to the ball or making an educated spot tackle.

Given all the media pressure this week, Sexton was magnificent, and only one handling mistake when he was clearly shaken blighted an otherwise marvellous game from a player that Ireland would be lost without.

The Herculean Vunipola was almost unstoppable. But as impressive as he was going forward, when Ireland had possession in the second half he was largely anonymous. I will probably be the only rugby pundit to say that while Vuniploa is immensely powerful, watching All Black Coach Steve Hansen will be able to negate a lot of his influence by controlling the possession and speeding the game up.

I was perhaps more impressed with the first start of young England second row Maro Itoje, who looks a fine prospect in the making. An athlete with raw potential, Itoje looks set for a long stay in a white jersey.

Not far behind him was the impact made by new Irish cap and second row replacement Ultan Dillane. The Kerry -born man  hails from good second-row country, that has produced the likes of  Moss Keane and Mick Galwey , and was fantastic when he came on.

With the likes of Irish Under 20 Captain James Ryan, and Iain Henderson back in harness, Ireland has some real strength in depth in that area.

Another to impress was Ulster inside centre Stuart McCloskey, who looked to the manor born in an Irish jersey. McCloskey combined well with centre partner Henshaw, and when you add in the likes of Gary Ringrose and others to the mix, Ireland looked to have a lot of exciting young players for the next world cup.

Josh van der Flier grew into the game, and looked impressive in parts.   Granted, he was bumped off by Vuniploa on occasion, but then again who wasn’t, as the 20-stoner often took three or four  more experienced Irish men with him on one of his regular sorties into Irish territory.

I believe England fullback Mike Brown’s reckless but unintentional use of the boot on Conor Murray will be looked at by the citing commissioner this week and could see the English star  stood down.

Brown is not a dirty player, and in some regards he was just doing what the law allows, but it is dangerous to keep hacking at a ball close to a player’s body, even if that player has the ball.

Yes, a player is entitled to try and hack the ball downfield, but it is another ugly part that has crept into the modern game, and each week I see players needlessly and recklessly trying to relieve pressure by throwing a boot out.

This time it resulted in eight stitches to Murray’s head – next time it could be worse. The game, while keeping its physicality, needs to be about protecting the player at all times, simple as that.  Let’s clean up the laws.


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