Saturday 20 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Sexton now possesses the same kind of stature as Dan Carter

Expansive stuff is missing but Ireland don't care, writes Eamonn Sweeney

In the 11th minute a superbly judged high kick to the corner almost put Tommy Bowe in
In the 11th minute a superbly judged high kick to the corner almost put Tommy Bowe in

Eamonn Sweeney

In its sheer remorseless efficiency, Ireland's display resembled nothing so much as one of those performances England used to grind out at the height of the Clive Woodward era. Back then we were inclined to make slighting comments and draw attention to the lack of Barbarians-style flair in the old enemy's game plan. But that was all jealousy because we knew we were looking at the kind of rugby that wins things.

And that is the kind of rugby which Ireland are producing at the moment. Ce n'est pas magnifique but c'est la guerre, you might say. This is a team which has got into the habit of winning and will maintain that habit by any means necessary. You don't hear much airy fairy talk about moving to the next level and playing a more expansive game these days; under Joe Schmidt Ireland are remorselessly focused on the bottom line.

Jonathan Sexton, scorer of five penalties in Ireland’s win over France, is treated for a nasty blood injury after a clash of heads with France’s Mathieu Bastareaud.
Jonathan Sexton, scorer of five penalties in Ireland’s win over France, is treated for a nasty blood injury after a clash of heads with France’s Mathieu Bastareaud.

That rigour imposed by Schmidt was one of the two big differences between the teams at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland, quite simply, approached the game with the kind of seriousness which France have lacked in recent years. Take something as simple as kick-offs. In the first half, Ireland switched their direction, sent Tommy Bowe in to contest the high ball, forced the recipient out over the line and generally treated them as an opportunity. France, by and large, just lashed them long to Simon Zebo. The thought which Ireland brought to every aspect of the game was glaringly lacking.

The other big difference was Johnny Sexton. The Ireland outhalf now possesses the same kind of stature in the Six Nations that Dan Carter once did in the Tri Nations. There is simply no-one else in the same class at number 10 in this part of the world.

Returning from his 12-week lay-off Sexton began proceedings with a couple of beautifully subtle kicks, one of which backed the French up inside their own half, the other taking Ireland off the back foot inside their own 22. In the 11th minute a superbly judged high kick to the corner almost put Tommy Bowe in. A couple of minutes later when a French kick-off landed in his hands, and how stupid was that? Sexton spiralled a kick 60 yards downfield into touch. And he concluded a bravura first quarter with a raking kick which found touch five yards from the French line and saw Ireland almost steal the throw-in.

It was, quite simply, like watching an artist at work. Sexton finished with a match-winning total of five penalties and underlined his utter indispensability to the Irish cause. From that point of view it was almost heart-stopping to see him twice clash heads with the equally indomitable Mathieu Bastareaud. Sexton emerged with apparently nothing more serious than a Hammer Horror movie head wound but there are times when you think the man is simply too courageous for his own good. His one lapse came in the 56th minute when, with men over, he and Jared Payne conspired to botch Ireland's clearest try-scoring opportunity of the game.

The French were 15-6 down at that stage and the game had taken on the lineaments of one of those Vladimir Klitschko title defences where the champ wins almost every round but can't quite land the knockout punch. The visitors had up to that stage looked every inch the team who finished fourth in the Six Nations last year and are a good bet to wind up in the same spot this time around.

Yet, inspired by the introduction of a new front-row and scrumhalf Morgan Parra, they did enough in the final 20 minutes to add a bit of suspense to a match whose outcome had looked utterly predictable for the first hour.

Ireland weren't exactly under siege but they did have to produce the same kind of sterling defensive display which got them through the frantic final ten minutes against Australia in their last home outing. France breached that defence once but it would have taken something special for them to get through a second time, and there is very little special about this French team.

In fact, the repeated assertion that 'it's dangerous to write off the French' now sounds more like an expression of superstition than a piece of analysis. There's something sadly telling about the presence of a pair of South African rejects filling the key positions of fullback and scrumhalf for a country with France's proud tradition of back play. The leaden-footed duo in question did little to suggest that laments for their absence are ringing across the veldt. Pascal Pape's crude foul on Jamie Heaslip was in tune with the generally shabby nature of the French performance. Even the most devout Papist could not have complained had he received a red rather than a yellow.

Ireland would not have been flattered by a larger winning margin but the one worrying feature of the victory was, for the second week in a row, a lack of creativity and penetration behind the scrum. Several good opportunities inside the French 22 came to nought and you longed for something a bit unpredictable to break the logjam. It was not needed yesterday but the day may come when it will be.

But Schmidt's men march on, winning having apparently become second nature to them. The sense of a team with destiny on its side will grow further after this latest scalp. After all, we know where Woodward's England ended up, don't we?

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is attended to by team doctor Dr. Eanna Falvey and referee Wayne Barnes following a blood injury during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is attended to by team doctor Dr. Eanna Falvey and referee Wayne Barnes following a blood injury during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

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