Monday 10 December 2018

Neil Francis: One moment summed up the man that is Johnny Sexton - our most important player in history

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates
Ireland's hooker Rory Best (2R) holds the Six Nations trophy and Ireland's fly-half Jonathan Sexton (3L) the Triple Crown as Ireland players celebrate their Six Nations Grand Slam victory. Photo: Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

And the responsorial psalm is: "Joe is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want." There were many things that could have gone wrong yesterday for Ireland but such is the confidence of the squad in their coach that victory was the only option open to them.

It was a gritty performance and Ireland bled themselves dry but the coach had them primed to win and the game-plan was executed to a tee.

Again the humility and the grace the New Zealander demonstrates time after time shows his exemplar personality and his clarity of vision. He is ruthless too. Vlad the Impaler is Shirley Temple beside him in moments of crisis. He got it right yesterday and I did not for a moment doubt him nor did his team.

So the nation must recognise this new crop of heroes. A Grand Slam is a singularly difficult quest to achieve and factor in too that there was no last-minute drama or a penalty goal at the death to make the nation sweat. I prefer to watch the inexorable nature of how Ireland, through sheer will, take hold of a game.

The team devoted itself to an idea and the group were serene in the eye of the storm. Hype is one thing, pressure to deliver when you absolutely have to - when the nation expects you to - is another matter.

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The team play a prescriptive brand of rugby but everybody knows what to do in moments of peril and there were quite a number of those yesterday when England eventually woke up after their first-half torpor.

The complexion of the game changed in the second half and if you want to quibble you could say that Ireland throttled back as they lost the second half 10-3. But such was Ireland's dominance and their ability to unhinge England even in Fortress Twickenham.

Halfway through the first half I thought to myself, 'Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?' Ireland could not capitalise on the momentum coming in after their previous four victories and even their performance in the first half.

I had for once value for money for my ref link to get a grasp of just how bloody-minded Ireland were. Some time in the second quarter Johnny Sexton got a bang to the nose and there was a stream of claret coming from his nostrils. Angus Gardiner told him to go off and get himself cleaned up. Sexton turned to him and said, "I'm not leaving".

In a moment such as this it was high farce but Ireland's outhalf knows how important he is to this team and once again ably demonstrated that he is Ireland's most intellectual player and without doubt the most canny in terms of assessing the needs of his team with a game of such magnitude.

Championships go by and champions come and go. Ronan O'Gara did many brilliant things for Ireland and he will be remembered most fondly for everything he has done for his nation but yesterday's win crystallises the notion that Sexton is our best outhalf and our most important player in history.

Three Heineken Cups, three Six Nations and now that has been copper-fastened with a Grand Slam says it all. There is no disputing his value or his position in the pantheon of greats and he has no intention, I would suggest, of stopping there.

Yesterday was a confirmation of the quality of footballers and athletes that are coming through our schools systems. Ireland have always been competitive at schools level and at under-20s. Only recently have they had the cojones to fast-track through that rich seam of quality that only announced itself in the last few years.

Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter all seamlessly fitted in to the dynamic yesterday and performed in the most competitive environment. They have flourished. It is a credit to them.

The question that now has to be asked is how good is this Ireland side? The answer would be that they would compare more than favourably with the 2009 team. This is no more ably demonstrated than with the quality and disposal now in the tight five. In truth, yesterday Ireland were perfect at tight. They were rock-solid at scrum time and if you want to win here any weakness shown in this area will be cruelly exploited by England. When England couldn't get any purchase here, they knew that their goose was cooked.

The other question we must ask is how good are all the other teams in the competition? To win in Paris and London suggests that France and England are far from their vintage sides. There is not much legitimacy in the question, and I guess to even ask such questions does a disservice to Ireland. Ireland will go to Australia this summer and win a Test series in the southern hemisphere for the first time in 40 years.

As for England, their opponents yesterday, now is the moment of truth for them. The English rugby team operates in two states - complacency and panic - they are now firmly in the latter stage. During the year Australian hooking great Phil Kearns said about Eddie Jones: "He will take England and shape them and then he will break them."

England looked a very tired side yesterday. Their fatigue levels are there for all to see and their confidence levels at this stage shot. They had many opportunities yesterday out wide but once again fatigue denied them and their passing was totally inaccurate when it needed to go directly to the man.

If they had been a little bit more fluent in the wide channels, they could have pressed and pressurised Ireland. Too many mistakes, too many balls to ground, too many passes behind the man and Ireland recovered and kept their shape.

On a bitterly cold day, Eddie Jones will need to wrap up warm when he goes to sign on on Monday morning.

It has been a signature note in Joe Schmidt's tenure that when his teams perform nobody plays badly. Once again Ireland and all their players maxed out on their performance levels and that self-belief told everybody here in Twickenham yesterday that there would be no other outcome to this match and to the conclusion of this championship.

The IRFU spent four million in their bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. They should forget all about that and spend €4m on keeping Joe Schmidt in the country so that they can actually win the World Cup as opposed to just hosting it.

To yesterday's players, the country salutes you on a fantastic achievement.

Congratulations to all.

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