Shades of Brian O’Driscoll as Jonny Sexton rolls with the blows
Bowed but unbroken, Johnny Sexton answered the mind games of England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, with a commanding performance, and despite Ireland’s defeat their fly-half showed why he remains the premier playmaker in this tournament.
For all of Ireland’s poor handling that scuppered their attacking game at key moments, Sexton and his half-back partner, Conor Murray, were the greatest influences on a team that played too much on the back foot.
Sexton is yet to miss a kick in this year’s Six Nations (nine from nine), and for all the talk about the battering he has taken in the opening rounds, his tally of 28 tackles is by some way the best of the fly-halves in the competition.
Jones incited a lot of criticism for discussing Sexton’s parents in reference to his history of concussion while also admitting the Irishman would be targeted at Twickenham. Sexton was having none it, however, and ensured he would be a force in this game as he tore open the English defence on a handful of occasions.
From this point onwards Sexton’s performances will gain more importance outside of Ireland, given that the British and Irish Lions’ tour to New Zealand kicks off in 15 months’ time.
Sexton was head and shoulders above anyone else in the British Isles when he toured Australia in 2013, so much so that Warren Gatland opted to take only two fly-halves.
Since then Sexton has racked up a lot of miles on the clock between his two-year spell with Racing 92 in the hazardous climate of the French Top 14 and the Six Nations, where he has been increasingly targeted by his opponents.
Although Ireland have been successful during this period, the 30-year-old is showing wear and tear to the point where his health and history of concussion provided Jones with plenty to talk about in the lead-up to this game. At the same time Dan Biggar, whose place-kicking seems to set an industry standard in this hemisphere, has emerged as the all-rounder that Wales have been searching for in their No 10 shirt, while George Ford has supplanted Owen Farrell for England.
Another element to consider is that Sexton’s authority will always be diluted in the eyes of New Zealand’s rugby public until he is part of an Ireland team that can actually beat the All Black machine – though the Irish will get two shots at the men in black this November.
But after two Tests against them and another campaign in the Six Nations, a tournament that is becoming more attritional by the year, the question to ask is: what condition will Sexton be in come next summer? This, after all, is a player who has only completed 80 minutes twice in his past 23 starts for his country, and at one point it looked like a borderline late tackle by Ben Youngs in the second half might force him off. While the hit contributed to an uncharacteristic knock-on a few seconds later, the Irishman had no interest in departing early.
Ireland’s coach, Joe Schmidt, has denied that he attempted to hide Sexton in the backfield against Wales, but for much of this game the fly-half was deployed deep alongside Rob Kearney as they tried to contain England’s kicking game.
The upside of Sexton’s sweeping role was that he often found himself protecting Ireland’s 13 channel, and in a contest where England enjoyed plenty of opportunity to run, it served the visitors well to have their smartest defender holding the fort.
Indeed, there were shades of Brian O’Driscoll as Sexton pushed hard on the ball-carrier constantly, and his pressure on Mike Brown and Ford defused English attacks at key times. Jones admitted: “He played exceedingly well and found a way to test our defenders constantly.”
Concerns over his physical and mental states were answered with one full-blooded shunt on Billy Vunipola which caused the mammoth No 8 to spill possession.
The Irish playmaker’s command of his team and their attacking game, undone by clumsy hands on three occasions, appeared sharp as Sexton showed a willingness to attack from deep. Barring one kick to touch that Brown managed to knock back into play, his searching punts out of hand got every inch available in order to provide brief periods of respite for Ireland in a gruelling first half when they attempted 95 tackles, more than double England’s efforts.
There was not much to concern Sexton despite a clash of heads with Ford and one tackle from Farrell prior to the interval. After being under the cosh for most of the opening period, Sexton was part of a revitalised Irish effort after the break, and his searing cut on 65 minutes provided Robbie Henshaw with a chance to claim Ireland’s second try of the game, but the ball slipped from his hand as attempted to score.
Had it counted, it would have contributed to the type of grandstand finish for Sexton’s team that would have been befitting of their No 10’s quality.
Independent News Service