Monday 19 February 2018

Neil Francis: The French game highlighted Johnny Sexton's two best qualities; his right and left testicle

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Jamie Heaslip after the game
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Jamie Heaslip after the game
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I have reviewed an awful lot of Six Nations matches in the last few days so that we get some semblance of an idea of what to expect on Sunday.

I hope you lot bloody well appreciate the effort on my part to do this. It was painful to watch.

I had a colonoscopy a few years ago where you can watch the whole thing on a television screen. There was a higher entertainment quotient in that exercise than there was in re-watching the Ireland versus France game.

Winning, however, is the prime factor in all redemptive situations. Winning against the French, however, is unconditional.

After the final whistle Johnny Sexton made sure of one thing. It was a fleeting and ephemeral moment in the aftermath of a gladiatorial encounter. Ireland's out-half made sure that he shook hands with every French player to the point that he nearly got caught up in their post-match huddle.

The handshake and the eye contact were so much more than "thanks for the match." What Sexton was doing in victory was marking his territory and after a display of irrepressible courage he was imposing his unflappable will on the vanquished.

Sexton had taken a fearful hammering all day - the handshake was to signify his mood was "was that your best shot lads?" A marker for the Millennium Stadium in six months' time.


In that moment we got to know Sexton's two best qualities - his right testicle and his left testicle. He is one tough hombre. I'm not sure how much relevance Thierry Dusautoir's speech had to his players but I'm sure he was thinking that if Sexton had been wearing blue, they would have won handy.

Jamie Heaslip is helped off the field after being kneed in the back by Pascal Pape
Jamie Heaslip is helped off the field after being kneed in the back by Pascal Pape

The first thing that you have to note when Ireland play England is that Johnny Sexton will line out in green. Ireland's out-half is on form the best player on the pitch. Whether he plays like that will determine the outcome of the game.

Given that this game I suspect will be purely for the purists, Sexton's value and influence becomes even more pronounced. He will be kicking again.

There might not be much change in selection tomorrow - Joe Schmidt might spring one surprise. Both teams have a strong core of decision makers and influential players but Ireland's top five have a significant advantage as they try and navigate the championship.

Ranked in order of influence and importance to their side I would rate Ireland's players thus:

1. Sexton

2. O'Connell

3. Heaslip

4. Murray

5. Kearney

England's most influential and important players I would rate as follows:

1. Robshaw

2. B Youngs

3. B Vunipola

4. Brown

5. Ford

Ireland's key players are all Lions - all Test Lions. England's players have one Lion (Youngs) and are significantly lacking in terms of combined Test appearances versus their Irish counterparts.

Experience in the decision-making positions in Test match rugby is of enormous strategic advantage.

Any slippage out of this pyramid of command can have knock-on consequences for both teams.

Heaslip is a player of unquestionable integrity and has rugby ingenue coursing through his veins and he is Ireland's best No 8 - ever.

There are a whole load of redoubtables who you could try and compare him with but it is just semantics. He is also one of Ireland's best forwards ever.

For some reason he seems to have attracted a small legion of doubters - from clueless contrarians to flat earthers who don't rate him. His value will become even more apparent when he is missing, and it could cost Ireland a championship.

Quite often the media produce stats on anything from lineouts won to tackles made. Much is made about the man who makes the most tackles. I do pay attention to these stats. It does put meat on the bone to your initial assessment - "yes indeed he was a busy boy" - when you read the tackle count. A lot of it sticks and you get to know who the tacklers are.

Heaslip normally makes about a dozen tackles a game depending on how much mopping up there is and how much pressure his team has to absorb.

As you read these stats things stand out, and the obvious point is that Ireland's No 8 is always top three or not far away. What is not immediately evident but comes from years of reading stats is that the guy never misses a tackle.

There is always a zero in the tackles missed column. He is Ireland's best tackler. The quality of his tackling is unambiguously reliable and the higher the quality of the game, the more certain his performance in this area. It is the sign of a great player - the ability to stay complete under claustrophobic pressure.

The other area of strength comes from the disciplined mind - he rarely gives away penalties - just doesn't. He thinks the percentages before doing something stupid at the breakdown and declines.

Everything from his ball carrying to his support play is first class. A Rolls Royce engine, an 80-minute player and a strong will to win, and the mark of the great player: the ability to do the mundane things intelligently and efficiently.


The only quibble - he doesn't pack down and scrummage when his tight five need him when they are under pressure. His ball control at the base particularly off a retreating scrum is not up to the same exacting standard that he lives up to in his universal game.

England would have been happier to see Ireland lose Sexton or O'Connell but they must also look at their own losses.

Second-rows Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes won't feature in this championship - their loss is a grievous one.

Mike Brown is a much bigger loss because he is the touch paper for all of England's - dare I say it - pyrotechnics. England's three-quarters have been nourished by Brown's threat on the outside. Brown's quickness is augmented by his speed of thought and ability to make chances for those around him.

It would be unfair to call his replacement Alex Goode a goalkeeper but his skill set is catching, kicking, a safe pair of hands and a sure tackler.

He might be suited to the type of game that I envisage happens on Sunday. England might be less inclined to run now that Brown is not playing.

The fact that Heaslip is not directing affairs at the breakdown might encourage them to keep things closer to the tackle zone.

The value of both players and their loss is only stated in a game of increments. Key plays by key players make the difference - I just feel that Heaslip's loss will be marginally greater than Brown's, and in a game of inches that can be the difference.

I have no idea how this game is going to go but I do know that the one side that has the strength of character to be inventive will win it.

Thus far England had the lead there - Ireland's better players need to impose their experience and sinewy will on proceedings.

I'll even swap a bad game for a win - again!

Read more: 'Captaincy is about what you do, not what you say and O'Connell and Robshaw are two of the best'

Read more: 'We won't waste time trying to wind up Hartley'

Read more: Cian Healy to start on bench as Schmidt set to give Jack McGrath nod

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