Friday 19 July 2019

Jonathan Sexton is world class and just as good as Dan Carter - New Zealand-born Jared Payne

Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton
Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton

Oliver Brown

New Zealand-born Jared Payne, a revelation for Ireland at centre and newly-naturalised citizen of the Emerald Isle, has paid team-mate Jonathan Sexton the ultimate compliment by suggesting that the fly-half is as accomplished a No 10 as All Blacks legend Dan Carter.

“Johnny is a world-class player, one of the best 10s – if not the best – in the world at the moment,” Payne said of Sexton, who is still a major doubt for next Saturday’s crucial Six Nations confrontation with Wales after hurting his hamstring in the 19-9 win over England.

“In terms of his range of skills and his game control, he is right up there with those players I have played with and against.”

Comparing Sexton to Carter, with whom Payne played for a season at Canterbury Crusaders, explained: “They’re both very similar. They are pretty relaxed and get their message across. They are able to control a game incredibly well and are two players who always have time on the ball.”

Such is Sexton’s metronomic accuracy, there is a growing sense that Ireland’s chances in Cardiff could hinge upon whether their inspirational outside-half is passed fit to play.

Payne, who has been recovering from a concussion sustained during the victory in Dublin last weekend, admitted: “It’s pretty important. That said, we have the two Ians, Keatley and Madigan, behind him at 10 and they can slot right in. We don’t have to rely on just Johnny, but he is obviously hugely influential.”

Ireland’s extraordinary winning streak of 10 straight games, stretching back to the narrow loss at Twickenham 12 months ago and equalling the historic run of 2002-03, has stirred hopes that they could yet prove the chief rivals to New Zealand to lift the World Cup this autumn.

Payne admitted that he had been receiving many a message to that effect from his native land. “I wasn’t aware of it until I got texts from a few mates,” he said. “If we’re standing out and they’re noticing us, that’s brilliant.”

Out in the provinces, the feeling of solidarity with the all-conquering team that coach Joe Schmidt has forged is appreciable. Indeed, there was almost a capacity crowd at Ravenhill here in Belfast on Thursday just to watch the team take part in an open training session.

Paying tribute to the leadership of Schmidt, a fellow Kiwi, Payne said: “He is incredibly detailed and accurate about what he wants, but at the same time you are able to chat to him off the field as a human being.

"He is not always getting angry – he strikes the balance very well.”

Schmidt’s Monday morning review sessions are notoriously forensic, and the post-England debrief was by all accounts no exception.

“I guess you want that as a player,” Payne acknowledged. “You do not want to be walking into the team, thinking you played a fair game, because you will probably get cut up a bit. You want to improve, and it is great that the coach will always pull you up on something.”

Simon Easterby, the former Ireland flanker now working for Schmidt as forwards coach, was similarly effusive about the coach’s unerring eye for detail. “Joe has a game plan that everybody can buy into,” he said.

“There are no grey areas. We understand how the team are expected to play, in whatever facet of the game. That just makes it easier for players to be intensive.”

There is no sentiment in this Ireland camp that the display against England was by any measure exemplary, with Easterby indicating that significant improvements were needed if they hoped to overcome a Welsh side buoyed by their triumph in Paris.

“It certainly wasn’t the perfect performance by any means,” he said. “I thought our set-piece was solid, our scrum in particular. But we allowed England to sneak back into the game. At times we were holding on. We need to make sure we don’t allow a team to have a sniff with 10 or 12 minutes to go.”

Despite mutterings that the brand of rugby embraced by Ireland has become sterile and joyless, relying excessively on Sexton’s peerless kicking, Payne was unapologetic. “The fact is that defences have been getting a lot better and if there is a weakness in the opposition’s aerial game, then you go to it, don’t you?” he said. “If it’s working, there’s no point changing it.”

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