Tuesday 21 November 2017

Tony Ward: Johnny Sexton will come good for Ireland but Jackson form looks a real bonus

18 December 2015; Ulster's Paddy Jackson during the captain's run. Ulster Rugby Captain's Run, Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill Park, Belfast, Co. Antrim. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
18 December 2015; Ulster's Paddy Jackson during the captain's run. Ulster Rugby Captain's Run, Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill Park, Belfast, Co. Antrim. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There's a problem at No 10. How great it is I'm not so sure because when push comes to shove and the Six Nations kicks off against the Welsh in Dublin, I believe Johnny Sexton will come good.

That said, it is disconcerting - not least for Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt - that of late our playmaker-in-chief has been anything but the dominant figure we know him to be.

I do not buy into the theory of too much rugby in his time in France. What I do sense is that was an unhappy period in his playing career which he hasn't yet exorcised.

Rugby players are human and they too are allowed a dip in form. The player welfare policy, however well intentioned, is much too rigidly applied. And lest you haven't noticed for all its trumpeting, we were hit as hard as any by way of injury at the most recent World Cup and its aftermath.

There is a middle line somewhere between the Top 14 philosophy of flogging expensively assembled commodities to death and the Irish one of keeping players wrapped in cotton wool. In the case of Sexton of late, I believe the IRFU and Leinster Rugby have got it right in resting him as much as possible, though he did play in testing conditions at the RDS last night.

A footballer normally high on adrenaline, he has seemed emotionally drained recently. Fitness allowing, he will start as first choice come February 7 and that Six Nations opener at the Aviva.

Against that, if Schmidt were to operate on form alone and were he picking a Whites or Probables team for a Final Trial, then it would be Paddy Jackson wearing ten with Ian Madigan immediately opposite in blue.

Jackson has been a revelation of late. His non-appearance at the most recent World Cup appears to have sparked a dramatic response. Specifically he is no longer drifting through matches as the defined link between Ruan Pienaar and the outside backs.


His obvious strength has been his distribution with his Achilles heel an apparent reluctance to run flat in attacking the gain-line.

Of late, though, he has been causing havoc in that respect - not just in creating confusion in the opposition defence (not least in checking the drift) but also in finding holes through a dynamic acceleration we hadn't witnessed before.

If Sexton fails to come good in time for Ireland then Jackson has earned the right to a shot in the green No 10 jersey. This evening's shoot-out against Munster is his Final Trial.

For Munster and for Anthony Foley, it's been five weeks of hell. Ever since beating Treviso and taking the bonus (which just about every other team does anyway) it's been a nightmare.

The forwards may not be the force of old but with Tommy O'Donnell back and Peter O'Mahony to return, they will be.

Beyond that they are all over the place but with the root of the problem at half-back and specifically the latter part of that link.

Conor Murray is irreplaceable and nailed on at scrum-half. As for out-half? There is no denying that Ian Keatley's mess (and by extension Foley's) is of his own making. That said, in both Tyler Bleyendaal and Rory Scannell I see two potentially talented inside-centres. Scannell in particular has that dynamic spark and also provides the left-footed alternative that only those who play No 10 can fully appreciate.

The problem with Keatley is the top two inches. He's like the girl in the ad - when he is good he is very, very good and when bad he can be awful. But it shouldn't be like that. He is by a distance the most complete footballing No 10 available to Foley and to Munster. He is an arm-around-the-shoulder player who needs all the TLC this Munster management can muster.

Everybody has their moments of misery in a match but Keatley is blessed, as was I, in playing in a position where, no matter what the blooper, it can and must be forgotten in a blink. Even Ronan O'Gara had his moments when his red cheeks showed it.

He looked and was flustered but inevitably recomposed himself in an instant and that's what made him great. Keatley at 28 is in his prime with the best days still to come. He must contain those visible signs of self-destruction mid-match whereby he drops the head or shakes it in acknowledgement of an error. Negative body language is a very real positive to the opposition.

The clear danger for Foley in dropping Keatley is very definitely letting the baby slip out with the bath water. When fit, my preference, particularly given Bleyendaal's nagging injury, would be a linking combination of Murray at nine, Keatley at ten and Scannell wearing 12. The current chopping and changing is leading to even greater confusion in the ranks.

There was, however, one very dominant out-half in Thomond the last day and he was wearing blue. I still wish Ian Madigan had made the move to Munster and not to Bordeaux but needless to say wish him nothing but the very best in this new adventure. The type of goodwill that Munster folk have shown towards Paul O'Connell in his move to Toulon should be replicated by Leinster followers now.

Madigan has been unselfish in the extreme, playing in whatever position he has been asked to play by both province and country. And whatever about the latter, he has been a model professional in his willingness to facilitate his various coaches at Leinster from Michael Cheika through Schmidt and Matt O'Connor to Leo Cullen.

I don't know whether Brian O'Driscoll made his comment tongue in cheek about Madigan not being the type of out-half - given his adventurous streak - that Munster need but suffice to say they have had those type of loose cannons in the past, Brian, and they lived to tell the tale! Point being I think Madigan would have been a revelation down south but that we will never know.

What I do know is that he has made the right move for himself in leaving Leinster and we wish him nothing but the best. He deserves it.

Irish Independent

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