Sunday 18 February 2018

George Hook: Johnny Sexton's a must if we are to see off French

Tommy Bowe contests a cross-field kick with Italy's Luke McLean
Tommy Bowe contests a cross-field kick with Italy's Luke McLean
George Hook

George Hook

HoW The Irish management and players came up with the usual cliches after the game. "We knew Italy would be tough and we would have to break them down," went the refrain. Sadly, the reality was far from that. Italy would field a full complement of players and were awful in every area, defence apart. That said, Ireland did not ask too many questions in attack and were incredibly one-dimensional.

Italy could never win a match in which they had a third of the possession and territory, lost one in three of their own lineouts and the Azzurri scrum never threatened what is an average Irish set-piece.

The result was that the Italians made more than 200 tackles with few errors, but that was the only aspect of their game that merited a pass mark.

Ireland took an hour to score a try, when Conor Murray scored from a yard. After years of defensive coaches, the first defender off the ruck at the line again failed to stop a lighter man. It beggars belief that such a simple task seems beyond professional players. Italy were broken and Tommy O'Donnell scored an easy try courtesy of three missed tackles.

Pedestrian

For 80 minutes, the Irish backline huffed and puffed without making one clean line break. The centre partnership was pedestrian and Robbie Henshaw clearly not suited to inside-centre. Meanwhile, Jared Payne confirmed the Ulster suspicion that he is a full-back, pure and simple.

Ian Keatley, who was playing above his pay grade, did not let the side down. He took his, albeit easy, kicks with certainty when he could so easily have imploded. He never dominated the game with his tactical kicking and his attack options were limited by the anonymous performances outside him.

If Ireland are to beat France then Johnny Sexton must play. That is asking a great deal of the French-based player, but no less an authority than Ronan O'Gara thinks it can be done. "Johnny is one of the few players that could step straight into the international arena after such a lay-off,' he said.

Coach Joe Schmidt is as big a control freak as Eddie O'Sullivan, but hides the toughness by a series of interviews sounding like an avuncular cuddly Kiwi. O'Sullivan was undone by losing matches, while Schmidt using the same methodology seemingly cannot fail.

In an astonishing admission, Sexton this week suggested that "a few of the guys have said this, you play the game with two voices in your head - your own and Joe's commentary. Make a mistake and you know you're going to hear about it on Monday morning".

Had a player said that during O'Sullivan's tenure, the coach would have been pilloried from on high. It seems we are edging ever-closer to the Super Bowl, where the coach rather than the player makes the decisions. I wonder how Jack Kyle, Ollie Campbell or Paul Dean would have reacted.

Next week, Ireland will be also taking a risk on Jamie Heaslip and it would be a miracle if Sean O'Brien were to make an appearance.

O'Brien, after months of rehab, tweaked a hamstring minutes before kick-off and his championship looks over.

The first weekend of the championship confirmed that the race to body size continues unabated. England, according to Conor O'Shea, bullied Wales into submission and skill and flair were notably absent in almost six hours of rugby.

The concussion debate ratcheted up quite a few notches after George North of Wales received three heavy knocks. In one collision, he went down as if struck by a Mike Tyson haymaker.

Interestingly, World Rugby, the governing body, asked the WRU to investigate the incident. The Welsh put out the usual all-embracing press release, with honeyed words about medical protocols passed by the player. This time, there was one huge difference. World Rugby did not act off its own bat, but in response to the massive outrage on social media. The fans, for the first time, became vocal in their reaction to what they saw as poor handling of a serious injury.

The medical profession now appears to be divided three ways. There are the doctors that work for the respective rugby unions, who see their role as keeping the players on the pitch within a flawed testing system.

There is also a tiny minority of medics who have spoken out, often at the expense of their place in rugby's elite. They were dismissed as scaremongers and mavericks. The vast majority, however, who went to the right schools or played for the right clubs, stay quiet and do not rock the boat.

Rugby Union as we know it is on its last legs. Within two years, it will be three games. Children, amateurs and professionals will all play variations of the same game. I found it hard to care about the results last weekend. All I wanted was brave young men to survive.

As the anthems played in Rome, I had a flashback to the time of the Caesars. Then, in a packed amphitheatre, gladiators saluted the emperor before combat. I wondered if at some future date and time instead of 'Ireland's Call', men in green would raise a clenched fist to the president of the IRFU and say, "We who are about to die, salute you."

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