Monday 19 November 2018

Neil Francis: Johnny Sexton should go to the patent office and ask to trademark 'wraparound'

Half-back combination's dangerous presence reflects the current gap in quality between Ireland and France

France’s Gael Fickou attempts to close down Johnny Sexton at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday Picture: PA
France’s Gael Fickou attempts to close down Johnny Sexton at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday Picture: PA
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In the 1995 Rugby World Cup we would be playing the All Blacks and Wales at Ellis Park in Jo'burg. The high veldt is about 6,000 feet above sea level. Five minutes of sustained activity and you are barking for oxygen. The rarefied air burns the bronchi deep in your lungs.

The world found out that the Paddies were doing their pre-tournament training camp in Kilkenny - which is two feet below sea level. Frank Carson would have had a field day.

All through the week-long camp I could feel my calf about to give up. John 'Paco' Fitzgerald had already been sent home injured. I wanted to play in my third World Cup. We got to the final day which was an open session, we were pretty much faffing around until a game of rugby league was ordered before the final whistle.

I got put clean through with only Simon Geoghegan hanging back 12 metres or so away. I had 70 metres to go but the mad ferret would have chased me through hell to make sure I wouldn't score a try - even on a Sunday morning throw-around.

As I quickened I could see these arms and legs and a shock of blond hair do a road runner in my direction. There would be no sport on my account as self-preservation set in.

I slowed, arced back around and fed David Corkery to a chorus of boos. If I had gone for it I would have pulled my calf - no World Cup.

Controlled Last Saturday at the Aviva, Johnny Sexton made the move of the match. It was the 27th minute and Ireland, though calm and controlled, needed to assert themselves. I am sure the patent office would be bemused if you came in to their office and asked to trademark a 'wrap-around.' If they asked for evidence or a demonstration I suppose the one that Sexton pulled in the 27th minute of the French game was as good as it gets!

Ireland's midfield pulled two great cuts which forced the French to check and Sexton ghosted/scuttled past his own outside centre with everyone committed - he was gone.

Jonathan Sexton runs at France's Guilhem Guirado during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Jonathan Sexton runs at France's Guilhem Guirado during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Sexton has a unique running style. For someone as tall as he is you would think that he would have a long, languid, rangy type of stride but he doesn't. He sticks his head forward, hunches his shoulders and there isn't much arm movement or knee high extension. Sexton is deceptively quick and when he got around the corner he was moving. It is the problem with these wrap-arounds - all of his outfield runners were needed to commit the defence so when he broke free there wasn't anyone with him.

Sexton was going somewhere between 85-90 per cent. How was his calf? Did he even have time to think about his hamstring? Deep in the recesses of his mind did he want another month or two of agony? Miss the rest of the Championship, maybe Leinster's quarter-final and possibly the Lions? The sporting gods relented and approved of his spirited endeavour! Sexton was heading in the direction of the corner flag and had a limited number of options open to him as the French impressively closed him down. When you line break you always try and keep the ball in hand and alive. If you take the tackle you could lose the recycle because you are isolated. France could just kill the ball anyway. He could have cut back inside or else tried the chip and chase.

He chose to chip and both himself and Keith Earls put enough pressure on Yoann Huget and Noa Nakaitaci to get a scrum five from which Ireland got over the line. The thing is that to run to get around the corner and accelerate into space was an impressive show of mental strength.

Yes, he wasn't running flat out but now I don't think he was minding himself either. It showed great awareness and great confidence. What it also showed is the difference in quality that Ireland has which decides games. Camille Lopes just doesn't have the skill-set, pace or quality to do what Sexton did and he doesn't have dodgy calves or hamstrings.

Speaking of speed, I thought the two lightest outfield backs were the most impressive when they got the ball into their hands. Garry Ringrose and Earls nearly always got away and stepped farther than you would expect. I always try and get down on the pitch before the match while the teams warm up. The French pack is huge but the French backs even without Mathieu Bastareaud are also huge men. It is, though, refreshing to see lighter, more agile skill players causing trouble against bigger men.

Conor Murray, after relatively quiet games against Scotland and Italy, pulled one out of the hat. Murray's all-round game is undoubted but his try last Saturday - his 10th for his country - spoke volumes for his overall contribution.

The scrum-half has very quickly picked up 55 caps but that try tally tells you how dangerous he is. Peter Stringer with 98 caps got seven tries. Tomás O'Leary with 24 caps got three and Eoin Reddan with 71 caps only got two. Stringer and Reddan would be seen primarily as links or passers - so maybe it's not fair to compare.

You would have to go outside the pro era to Michael Bradley who got eight tries with 40 caps. Brads had a good eye for the line. You either have it or you don't. Murray's ability close in is probably the best in the world. He has even overtaken Mike Philips' nine tries in 94 caps - a player that a lot of people compare him to. Philips I thought was a lot more impulsive than Murray.

Johnny Sexton celebrates after kicking a drop goal against France yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton celebrates after kicking a drop goal against France yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile

Instinct is huge at this level but the difference behind the two is that Murray is far more cold-blooded and far more patient. It is always interesting to observe Murray when Ireland get close to the line. Most of his current forwards with the exception of Stander suffer badly from white line fever and he always seems to know the best time or moment when to try himself. It's called temperament.

I will be surprised if Murray does not finish his career with a tally in excess of 20. He is still only 27 and has another two World Cups in him. As for his try last Saturday, while not a thing of beauty, there was something really pure about his reading of the moment and his decision to go for it. It was one of the most important tries that he has ever scored.

Murray's opposite number last Saturday Baptiste Serin looks a very good prospect, which means the French will give him seven or eight caps before consigning him to the scrapheap. His break in the first half was rattlesnake quick and his step left Rob Kearney for dead.

Jamie Heaslip, who had a sensational game, saved everyone's blushes with a great tackle but should have seen yellow for hands. I had to laugh when I saw Rog analysing the break and pointing out that Ireland were defending with too much width from the pillar out.

Against Scotland, Ireland were defending in too narrow channels - oh well, we will all get it right eventually. Any time you keep France try-less is a good day.

Finally, I thought Nigel Owens had another really good game. The thing that he manages to do well is his time management. He, like everyone else, gets frustrated with stoppages and the length of time it takes to for instance form up for a scrum which can take 30-40 seconds if it doesn't collapse again. To get more ball in play, Owens tells his TMO/timekeeper "time will go on when the ball comes in". Instead of restarting the game when the forwards go about getting ready for the scrum, Owens calls 'time on' as the ball is being put into the scrum - brilliant use of time!

Irish Independent

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