Saturday 19 October 2019

Sinead Kissane: If Schmidt decides on a new Ireland captain for 2019, there is only one man for the job


Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

There were just around five minutes remaining in last Saturday's game in Paris when the Frenchman in charge of media operations put an Ireland teamsheet in front of us and asked me to pick a player.

Try-scorer Teddy Thomas was going to be named man of the match by French TV so I had to choose an Irish player to interview for the 45-second flash interview on the pitch for TV3 after the full-time whistle.

The night light around Stade de France was beginning to look like another false dawn for Irish rugby.

Hope was dissolving into heartbreak as Ireland trailed France by a point.

How had it come to this? I quickly ran my finger down the teamsheet looking for the player to interview who was going to give it straight and not cover this performance in niceties.

There was only one man for it.

"Johnny Sexton, s'il vous plait," and I handed the team-sheet back to the media man.

Sexton was a player who could tell the story.

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But I should have known there was still time for Sexton to become the story.

Minutes before that the Ireland out-half stood near the posts with his team-mates giving it his best Big Jim Larkin impression.

Anthony Belleau would kick the conversion to send France into the lead for the first time in the game.

Sexton was all arms as he tried to rile up his team-mates.

Before the second Lions Test in New Zealand last summer, Warren Gatland spoke to Sexton about his tendency to gesticulate with officials and asked him to be careful.

Sexton's gesticulations last Saturday night were a sign of fight not flight.

While those of us on the sideline were preparing for what looked like an inevitable losing conclusion, Sexton was taking on the role of writing the future. He practically bent this game to his will.

The 41-phase endgame showed many things.

It showed Sexton and the team have a decision-making capability uncompromised by tiredness or pressure.

It showed Sexton (right) can walk the tightrope of calculating risk against reward with that cross-field kick to Keith Earls.

It showed Ireland have a fitness level which can allow players to, as CJ Stander said a few days later, go to a "dark place" to do what needs to be done for a win.

It showed a skill-set which did not crack despite being stress-tested by suffocating pressure and uncomfortable conditions.

More than anything the endgame showed that Ireland have an out-half who takes responsibility, who will risk becoming the fall guy in the search for victory for the team and who knows what his team-mates need from him before they even know it themselves.

What also made this endgame special was that it was fuelled by emotion.

If we see someone pull off a spectacular move it may not plug us in beyond the 'wow' and pride factor.

But during the 41 phases it was easy to appreciate the fear players had in not wanting to be the one who made the mistake.

It also showed us how much they wanted to win, I mean, really flippin' win.

No wonder there was a pile-on at the end.

After the toll of that mental and physical exertion, seeing the players celebrate wildly afterwards was almost like Irish rugby's version of Italia '90.

And the question we're left asking all this week was what that victory said about this team?

"I think when the clock goes red and you keep going on through and you're in your own half and you get to 41 phases and you hit a drop goal from there, I think it shows a lot of character and a lot of belief," Rory Best said yesterday.

"That is something that is hard to get in a side. And when it's there you feel that you can win games no matter what situation you're in and it's a really pleasing trait that we have."

Join the dots and you could say this win has added an aura to this Ireland team.

But 'aura' is a makey-uppy media word used when we can't qualify what makes a team special.

Break it down and there's nothing mythical about Ireland. The essence of them is that they work incredibly hard, they're smart and they learn from mistakes.

Former Ireland and Leinster lock Mike McCarthy said this week that following the manner of Ireland's 24-22 loss to New Zealand in 2013 that Schmidt added a new fit-for-purpose drill to training sessions to ensure that players would know how to respond the next time they were in that position.

"Joe worked out that the ball was in play for four to four-and-a-half minutes, so a big thing, which since then Ireland have done on a Monday or Tuesday, is this segment of four to four-and-a-half minutes where you actually work harder than you do in the game," McCarthy said.

"So, it's multi-phase, keeping the ball, running into bags, setting up rucks in different areas of the pitch".

No-one leads the work ethic more than Sexton.

At the Aviva Stadium yesterday he was not only the last player off the pitch after the captain's run but he spent time signing autographs with supporters despite the cold conditions.

Best said last November that Schmidt told him he would look at the captaincy at the end of this Six Nations.

If Schmidt decides on a new captain to lead Ireland into and beyond the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Sexton is the man for it.

All of his hard work came together in that endgame last weekend.

"I have known Johnny a very long time, 12 years maybe, and I can think of, definitely over the last eight years, hundreds of drop goals being hit after practice," Ireland assistant coach Richie Murphy said on Tuesday.

"For young kids who are out there you have to make sure you do your extras."

The manner of the win over France could be the making of this Irish team.

The victory over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 was celebrated for the history-making achievement it was, but Ireland were given a free pass on pressure that day because not many expected them to win.

But what made last weekend very special was that they managed to put aside the fact they had punched below their weight, they turned the momentum of an away Six Nations game and switched to putting into practice all of those hard hours on the training ground to get the chemistry just right.

'Aura' is just a bit of myth making. It's about reputation. Reputation is created from repetition and that's the making of this Irish team.

Irish Independent

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