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Thursday 8 December 2016

Johnny is back to his best

Tight-head Furlong can start for Ireland if he passes Champions Cup scrum tests

Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton kicks a penalty in last Friday’s PRO12 victory over Ospreys at
the Liberty Stadium, Swansea. Pics: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton kicks a penalty in last Friday’s PRO12 victory over Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea. Pics: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The deterioration of Jonathan Sexton has been greatly exaggerated!

That was the conclusion of Leinster's ride to the top of the PRO12 League on Friday night (following their 22-9 away victory over The Ospreys).

Just when the Christmas and New Year's celebrations, or commiserations, had been put to bed, the Six Nations popped up on the horizon.

That means Wales coming to Dublin on February 7. That also means Sexton versus Dan Biggar in a showdown of Europe's highest ranked out-halfs.

Ireland's out-of-form Sexton made his way to The Ospreys where 'big time' Biggar was waiting to confirm his new number one seeding for the 6N.

It would be no outlandish statement to rank Sexton's play on the night as good as anyone has seen from him for some time.

The decisions were right on the money and the execution of them put The Ospreys on the chopping block.

It wasn't long after the final whistle that Sexton showed not even he is immune to the slings and arrows that have been aimed at him.

"I've been getting a bit of stick at home," he said. "When you play ten, for me, I try and prepare my best all the time.

"Sometimes it comes off; other times it doesn't."

Sexton is not an island onto himself.

The unsatisfying two years at Racing Metro and the World Cup collapse left their stud marks on him.

As the most important player for province and country, Sexton takes the garlands in victory and the garlic in defeat.

The added implications of Leinster's irrelevance in Europe from back-to-back dousings by Toulon have not accelerated the process of mental rehabilitation.

"It is important through those times, to listen to the people that are close to you," he added.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt would be one of those figures. Sports psychologist Enda McNulty is probably another.

"I knew I wasn't a million miles away," he said. "Thankfully, I didn't pay much attention to the outside really."

The old mantra of 'controlling the controllables' shoots to mind.

Now that Sexton finally looks like he has shed the heartbreak, he can resume his status as the fulcrum of Schmidt's attacking philosophy.

What about Jamie Heaslip? When he goes down, who stands in his place for Leinster? For Ireland?

Heaslip's bullet-proof reputation for rarely being injured could not survive a crunching clash of heads with Ben Te'o on Friday night.

The motionless state of Ireland's number eight and his groggy appearance leaving The Liberty Stadium pitch immediately had the mind racing ahead to February 7.

Before then, it is highly unlikely Heaslip will be released to play for Leinster against Bath in the dead-rubber Champions Cup match at The RDS next Saturday.

Should the knockout effects of the concussion linger and Heaslip fail to fully recover from his return-to-play protocols, Leo Cullen won't be the only one with a decision to make.

At Leinster, the disappearance of Jack Conan from Ireland's radar with a broken foot has removed one option.

The coming man was ruled out for an estimated ten weeks in mid-November and has just had the protective removed.

It is safe to presume he is some way away from Leinster match fitness, never mind pushing for a game in green.

The most obvious next man up, based on the World Cup picture, is quarter-final try-scorer Jordi Murphy.

However, the multi-purpose back-rower took more time than most to get over that hangover, allowing Josh van der Flier to move into second on the grid behind Seán O'Brien for the seven shirt.

Temptation

The temptation for Cullen would be to move O'Brien to the middle of the back-row and accommodate Van der Flier at openside with Rhys Ruddock completing a well-balanced trio loaded with power, athleticism and agility.

For Joe Schmidt, the rock-like durability of Heaslip has stymied the development of a guaranteed number two.

In the unlikely turn of Heaslip not convincing the medical staff of his right to fight, the form choice would be to hand CJ Stander his international debut at number eight.

Formerly seen as a one-dimensional, direct carrier, the South African born forward has been monitored and mentored by one Paul O'Connell.

The influence of one on the other has been most significant this season in terms of his leadership, in the way he has stepped up to the plate when so many others around have failed to even find it.

There were other subtle shifts in Swansea such as the clear improvement in the consistency of Tadhg Furlong's scrummaging, moving on from a number of solid outings.

The Wexford tight-head has been able to keep the scrum straight, legal and, often moving forward against Munster, Ulster and The Ospreys in his last three matches.

It is the last piece in the puzzle as the 23-year-old bids to back-up or even take over from Mike Ross.

Ireland's mainstay is not guaranteed to make the start of the Six Nations.

This leaves former Waikato Chiefs captain Nathan White in pole position for his big game experience.

But, Furlong made eight tackles on Friday, missed none, carried seven balls, including one clean offload.

Better

He also went straight ahead for two penalties out of Wales international Paul James and was caught for one when James clearly drove on the angle, probably out of frustration for how Leinster were better in this area.

Like Garry Ringrose in the centre, the next two Champions Cups games can be the making of his season.

The fact is Bath and Wasps both bring outstanding scrums to the table and they both still have everything to play for in Europe.

 

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