Ireland’s chief orchestrator

Johnny Sexton is the one player Ireland can’t afford to be without at the World Cup, writes GERRY THORNLEY.

Some players are more important to teams than others. Funnily, that’s the nature of team sports. Even the All Blacks wouldn’t be the same without some key men. To be in Wellington that day during the pool stage of the 2011 World Cup when news filtered through of Dan Carter’s cruelly timed injury was akin to experiencing a national crisis in a foreign land. A funeral pall of gloom descended over the city, and no doubt the country. That almost everyone was wearing black seemed appropriate.

The All Blacks did somehow get there, and won the World Cup after 24 years of hurt, but it was in spite of losing their talismanic 10, not because of it. No other flyhalf had had a look-in over the previous four years. They were as ill-prepared for that eventuality as any team could have been. And if that can apply to the All Blacks, it is most certainly true of Ireland, with its smaller playing base and pool of exceptional players.

For example, it’s hard not to believe that if Paul O’Connell, Jamie Heaslip or Conor Murray were injured, Ireland’s 2015 World Cup wouldn’t be undermined. And then there’s Johnny Sexton.  

Sexton is probably the best flyhalf in Europe, a Lions Test series-winning flyhalf and back-to-back Six Nations-winning flyhalf at that, who was also  the starting 10 in all of Leinster’s three European Cup wins. In Ireland, we have always had the distinct impression that if Joe Schmidt has a favourite player, it is most probably Sexton, and with good reason. Schmidt has won two European Cups, a Celtic Pro12 title, a European Challenge Cup and two Six Nations crowns in five unbroken years of trophy-laden success. And Sexton has been the orchestral conductor for all of them, the playmaking flyhalf and goal-kicker.  

Even before Schmidt assumed the helm at Leinster, Sexton had coolly stepped in as Felipe Contepomi’s replacement in the European Cup semi-final win over Munster in 2009. The tournament will probably never again witness a match-turning, second-half performance on the scale of Sexton’s virtuoso two-try, 28-point effort in Leinster’s 33-22 comeback win over Northampton in the 2011 final in Cardiff. It was truly Carter-esque.

Then there was his 66-point tally in the 2014 Six Nations, culminating in him masterminding the title-clinching win in Paris, when he again took on the running responsibility to score two tries. He kicked immaculately for most of Ireland’s 2014-15 season, regaining his nerve after two misses on the critical final day in Edinburgh. Remarkably, after missing the opener against Italy after an enforced 10-week absence due to concussion issues, Sexton could have been Man of the Match in any of the four games he played.

The evidence suggests his kicking off the tee and out of hand have improved from working with former nemesis and rival at Ireland, Ronan O’Gara, since they formed a new relationship as player and coach for the past two years at Racing 92 in Paris.

Sexton has always had a turn of foot to make him a running threat, as well as the strength and ultra competitive zeal to make him that rarity – a tackling flyhalf. In short, he is Ireland’s most important player.

He’s also had to bide his time, so at 30 years of age, and with 51 caps at the time of writing, he should now be entering his peak years. Yet, no less than Ireland, he has some baggage coming into the World Cup. Whereas the Six Nations is played every year, the World Cup comes by every four years, and Sexton missed out on 2007, lost his place before the quarter-final exit against Wales in 2011, and hence will put himself under pressure to perform at this year’s tournament.  

‘I remember being included in an Irish squad when I was 21 and that was a World Cup year,’ he recently recalled. ‘If I’d played or been involved in the Six Nations that year, you never know. And then when you’re 25 at a World Cup, you’re thinking “I’ve got another two of these”, whereas now I’m thinking: “This could be my last one”. And it’s amazing that it comes full circle.

‘The last one did end disappointingly for me personally and from the team point of view. When you hear Brian O’Driscoll say that game [the quarter-final defeat to Wales] was the biggest disappointment of his career, it really hits home how important it’s going to be.’

That World Cup might have panned out differently for him but for some place-kicking issues, and particularly one penalty off the post which resulted in O’Gara taking over the duties in the 15-6 win over Australia. Sexton has also been portrayed, à la O’Gara, as something of a tortured soul, not least bearing in mind the additional baggage that comes with being a place-kicker. But Sexton would hate not to be the goal-kicker. ‘I’ve marked down every kick I’ve taken in every game. I’ve got it in a book at home.’

Sometimes he works out his different percentages for club/ province and country, and examines how he can get to 90% for them.

‘I’ve missed kicks, one here or one there, but I’ve had two periods where I’ve kicked poorly for two or three games – one off the back of an injury, another off probably trying too hard. But these breaks in the season allow you to re-evaluate everything and almost start again.’

Another positive, he reckons, is that he will be fresh until the end of the season.

‘It’s part of the game. The 10s who I admired growing up, most of them were like Stephen Larkham and Jonny Wilkinson, these type of guys. They were as good a tackler as anyone else on the pitch. I’ve always liked that part of the game. I’ve missed tackles. I’ve missed important tackles. I wouldn’t be laid off for 12 weeks if I had a perfect tackle technique but I think it’s part of the game and you’ve got to be good at it. If you want to be considered a top-class player, you’ve got to tick all the boxes.’

He’d also hate to think that opponents might regard him as a weak link in any aspect.

‘From my point of view, when you’re playing against a team and you have that easy 10 channel to target, it’s a luxury because you can keep going there. You know it’s going to launch your game for two or three phases because if the first phase is good, the next phase is good.’

The best Ireland have managed in seven World Cups is five quarter-finals, and they couldn’t reach the semi-finals in four attempts with Brian O’Driscoll. But now they have Schmidt, an outstanding coach, and the team’s balance of influence has perhaps shifted, with the Murray-Sexton alliance as good as anything European rugby has to offer at halfback.   

Sexton had to wait patiently for his chance and he is now entering his best years. Simply put, he is Ireland’s most important player.

– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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