Sunday 17 December 2017

Sexton edges it in battle of the Jonnys

John O'Brien in Twickenham

YOU can picture the scene at Twickenham maybe 40 minutes before kick-off.

A few Irish players are warming up at the South Stand end of the ground. Ronan O'Gara keeps vigil on one side of the field, measuring the pitch, establishing his bearings in a rapidly-filling stadium, taking a few pot-shots at goal. For the outhalf it seems like just another day at the races.

This was no normal day, however. Yesterday wasn't the first time O'Gara would have started a match wearing a thick, weather-proof coat to keep him warm, but few selectorial decisions will have caused him more angst.

Think of the pain inflicted in Paris two weeks ago, the stinging criticism that followed, the questionable step of venting his fury in a letter to a national newspaper. Worse, the lack of a quick opportunity to put things right or a chance to exorcise his demons.

Although honest and professional to the core, O'Gara does not strike you as a happy spectator. You can imagine him sitting among the replacements, impatient and antsy, seething quietly at his treatment. He would be willing his team to victory against their fiercest rivals, of course, but something about the manner of it would have left him with a slightly troubled conscience.

The opening minutes wouldn't have lightened O'Gara's mood. Because Jonathan Sexton, with whom he is locked into a titanic duel for the No 10 shirt and who was making his first Six Nations start for Ireland, had settled into the game as well as could be expected. Sexton's first touches were neat and positive. He looked keen to lay down a marker, full of belief that he could dictate the game as he saw fit. Exactly what O'Gara had been unable to do in France.

In the company of one of his idols, you might have expected Sexton to betray the slightest sense of intimidation. What then of the close proximity of two? When Jonny Wilkinson kicked England to World Cup success in 2003, Sexton had just turned 18, just finished at St Mary's College. Six months ago it was probably fair to say one of his career highlights was kicking lessons from Wilkinson's mentor, Dave Alred.

He has O'Gara's cussedness, though, among other qualities too. From the start the Jonny versus Jonny show was edging the younger man's way. When Wilkinson shipped England's first turnover, Sexton was quickly in the line, gathering Jamie Heaslip's pass and placing his chip on a tee for Tommy Bowe to score Ireland's first try. Sexton and Bowe have played just four times together for Ireland. Yesterday you might have guessed it was 40.

It hasn't been an easy Six Nations for the playmaking out-halves, considered something of a misnomer in the case of Wilkinson. If O'Gara thought he had it tough, what would he make of life in Jonny's boots? With Wilkinson back in the No 10 shirt, England had opened the tournament with successive victories against Wales and Italy and still his critics waded in, diagnosing sterility and decline.

Within the first 10 minutes yesterday, Wilkinson had passed the ball probably more than he had in those first two games combined. England dominated possession and were spiky and adventurous throughout. If anything, their reputation will have been further enhanced in defeat than it had been after either of those previous two victories. Try as hard as they did, they could not close the deal.

And how heroic Ireland had to be to keep them at bay. By the end their tackle count was approaching three figures. The crucial detail is that only one of those had been missed. And, for sure, they will realise that the two-week break they enjoyed after Paris was another critical detail because, without it, it would have been impossible to envisage such a level of resistance.

For sure there was something old-fashioned about the guts and doggedness they showed. The playing surface was bare and difficult and lent itself to the kind of intense scrap that harked back to days gone by. Yet this was a thoroughly modern Ireland victory. Heroic resistance for 60 or 70 minutes was once Irish rugby's blueprint. Then the inevitable late collapse. Defeat was there for Ireland to embrace if they were of a mind for it, but those stains from the past are purged from their DNA now. They were defiant and classy to the last.

In all, Sexton would land just one kick from five and you know the outhalf will have been disappointed with such figures. But the stats don't always tell the story. Three of his kicks were from tight on the touchline. Another was from inside his own half. Instead, what of the delightfully weighted pass that released Keith Earls for Ireland's second try?

That moment encapsulated something of the difference between the sides. England lorded possession and showed a manic amount of desire. But Ireland delivered all of the critical grace notes. Sexton's hands, Earls's dash to the corner. Later, Tomas O'Leary's pop-pass, Bowe's storming run from deep. The sight of Ben Foden scratching his head as Bowe touched down was a picture. Collectively, England were mystified as to how they could dominate the game yet trail by four points. The answer could be delivered in one word: class.

Not that Ireland were perfection, or even approached that blissful state. They were what they weren't in Paris two weeks ago: tight and disciplined. Consider the movement that led to Earls's try. O'Leary had conceded a penalty inside his own half, that Mark Lawrence reversed following a display of petulance from Danny Care. Sexton kicked Ireland into the corner and, from their next move, Earls dived over in the corner.

It didn't decide the game because England subsequently put themselves in a winning position with a fine Wilkinson drop-goal. But Ireland still had one ace left to play, though. And they made it count.

And if you could choose one moment to keep from the game, it could be either of Bowe's lightning runs or his team-mates swamping Earls after the Limerick man had swooped for his side's second try. Or it could be the sight of Sexton leaving the field after 69 minutes, casting a wistful glance at Ireland's technical analyst, Mervyn Murphy. A look that screamed frustration and angst.

A look that presaged good things for the days ahead.

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