Wednesday 21 March 2018

David Kelly and Ruaidhri O’Connor debate - Can Ireland do without Sexton?

Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

David Kelly and Ruaidhri O’Connor

Ireland learned to cope without their top 10 in 2016 so why should that change in 2017, asks David Kelly

The immediate litmus test of a shock announcement - from US presidential election results to dramatic currency slumps - is to ascertain how the markets react.

For the markets are dictated by the public and the public respond emotionally to shock information.

Sport is an immense triviality compared to grander political and economic issues but similar principles apply.

So when Johnny Sexton was peremptorily ruled out of Saturday's Six Nations opener against Scotland, the response of the markets was immediately pinpointed.

From a morning 9/4 (or €2.25 return for every €1 spent) Ireland's odds for the championship drifted to 5/2 (€2.50 for every €1) within seconds of the news breaking.

A few pence in the difference may not seem like much to the occasional mug punter but, with the Six Nations expected to turn over betting sums running into tens of millions of pounds, the seismic shift is plain to see.

A dramatically dwindling number outside the camp seems to have faith in an Ireland without Sexton.


Well, it's about time they should.

If Joe Schmidt and the Irish management team have trust in him and, more crucially, if his Irish team-mates believe that he is their "go-to" man, then that should be sufficient for all avid rugby supporters.

If Ireland feel that they simply cannot sustain a title challenge until round three without Sexton guiding them at out-half, what does that say about the supposed faith and trust in the oft-lauded depth of squad?

The last World Cup exposed, on so many different levels that were at once so destructive but also instructive, that Schmidt's squad were not even capable of adequate covering absences in other areas of the side, let alone the pivotal position where the general likes to deploy his most trusted on-field deputy.

This has to change and, when the squad toured South Africa last summer following a second tournament slum in succession, Schmidt definitively begun to plot such a course of action.

Ireland's November assault on New Zealand and Australia reaped the rewards of this policy; Jackson proved more than competent when asked to start and finish against the Wallabies.

Even earlier, Jackson had been allowed the responsibility to steer the ship in South Africa; it was a heartening coincidence that the country's first ever Test win in the Boks' back-yard coincided with his steady hand on the tiller.

The immediate response to Sexton's absence now is an understandable one, particularly prompted by the memories of Jackson's only other Championship start in this fixture four years ago.

But four years is a lifetime in international rugby; four years before Sexton became a Lion, he was ditched from Leinster and playing club rugby.

Jackson has grown in stature immeasurably since then, his goal-kicking stats are off the charts and no longer does he need to be babysat when operating beside Ruan Pienaar at misfiring Ulster.

Much of the angst stems not from whether anything will go wrong with Jackson in the side but rather what may happen if he too gets injured; this is where the strength in depth that Schmidt so covets remains threadbare; albeit Joey Carbery's injury is unfortunate.

Ian Madigan remains exiled and Ian Keatley is purportedly soon to join him; aside from that a rookie, part-time out-half, even if in stellar provincial form, is the only other current option.

Hence, Jackson is the obvious choice to start this Championship and, although the Irish camp, with a slight sense of desperation, weren't ruling Sexton out of the Italian game just yet, Jackson may have to finish the campaign too.

"He has been in this system and this group for longer and it allows him to be much more confident," argues assistant coach Simon Easterby.

"The lads around now look to him when he is speaking and that is the mark of someone who has everyone's ear and the mark of someone who can take the team forward and be that 'go-to' which most teams want their ten to be."

Ireland are better than Scotland and Italy, with or without Sexton, a player whose fitness may not be guaranteed by the next World Cup.

Jackson must, at some stage, demonstrate that he has the mental and physical attributes required to sustain a realistic challenge for full-time occupancy at number ten.

The next fortnight may calm the markets and, much more importantly for the long-term fortunes of his squad, strengthen the reserves when it really matters, at a World Cup, rather than expose them.

Ireland must become a team wherein no player is indispensable.

Absence of leading star for opener significantly weakens Schmidt’s hand, says Ruaidhri O’Connor

At last week's Six Nations launch, it was put to Joe Schmidt that 18 months on from the Rugby World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina, Ireland are now in a position of real depth.

"I think in some positions (we do)," came his response.

"You always want more, because you're still two injuries away from being in a bit of trouble and there are still one or two positions where we're one injury away from having quite a big difference in experience and that's always a concern."

He wasn't about to name names, but Johnny Sexton's was sure to be in his mind as he took the question.

Paddy Jackson is growing his game as the seasons go on and is becoming more and more comfortable at the top level, but with 10 international starts to his name he still can't offer what Sexton brings to the table.

With 63 caps for Ireland and three Test starts for the Lions with 592 international points, the St Mary's man remains a world-leading out-half when fit.

The problem is that he is so often unable to play that both Ireland and Leinster are learning to cope without him.

Can Jackson lead Ireland to glory this spring? Sure, it's possible, but the surety of performance that exists when Sexton dons the No 10 jersey simply isn't there with the talented 25-year-old.

On Saturday, he returns to the venue where he made his international debut in 2013, parachuted in ahead of his time by Declan Kidney on a day he'll never forget no matter how hard he tries. The Jackson we'll see this weekend has taken all of the knocks of those early seasons and grown into the player who has long been earmarked as an international out-half and his CV is beginning to build with the scalps of South Africa and Australia now on the list of achievements.

When he took over from the again-injured Sexton in June, Jackson did well on tour but Rory Best has spoken of a lingering regret that Ireland left a Series win behind.

His fellow Ulsterman did little wrong, but had Sexton been fit enough to play a part then things might have been different when the final two Tests came down to the final moments.

People seem to forget just how good Sexton was in a struggling Ireland team last season, dragging them almost single-handed back into contention at Twickenham in particular as the game threatened to get ugly.

The young guns got much of the credit, but the out-half was his team's totem.

After securing his signature to return from Paris in 2015, the IRFU invested their hope that the Leinster man would lead this Irish team to the next World Cup. His contract ends in 2019, but his injury profile puts that prospect into doubt.

Instead, Jackson can build on his experience with high-pressure games in the northern hemisphere's toughest rugby environment.

All of this will stand to him in 2019, but if Ireland are targeting some silverware this season they'd have a far better chance if their No 1 man was fit.

The loss is further amplified by the absence of Jared Payne from the Ireland backline, while Andrew Trimble is also likely to be injured this weekend, robbing Schmidt of another experienced campaigner.


On the pitch, Sexton is Schmidt's eyes, ears and voice and when he and Payne are gone the burden on Conor Murray's shoulders to guide the group of young stars outside him grows.

There is a reason why Schmidt was willing to place his faith in his long-term on-field general despite him playing just 172 minutes of rugby since limping out of Ireland's loss to New Zealand on November 19.

For all of his woes, Sexton still remains the man and Ireland will be hoping that this troublesome calf injury won't keep him out for the whole tournament.

His injuries will continue to afford Jackson the opportunity to grow his game at the top level in rounds one and two, but when both are fit and available the choice is simple and if Sexton gets fit again, he'll come back into the team.

Without him, Ireland's prospects of winning at Murrayfield on Saturday have reduced and while the hope is he'll recover to play a part later in the tournament, his absence undermines their chances of getting to the visit of England to Dublin on March 18 unscathed.

Scotland greeted the news with public indifference, but privately they'll be delighted. News that he's out makes their lives easier and that can't be good for Ireland.

Irish Independent

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