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Brent Pope: Irish must develop a really ruthless streak

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Jonathan Sexton. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Jonathan Sexton. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Jonathan Sexton. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Years ago as coach to a Leinster 'A' side I witnessed something special. A young, raw centre from Blackrock College would emerge as one of the greatest rugby players of all time - Brian O Driscoll.

Some years later while watching a St Mary's College club game I also witnessed another similar type of player, this time just out of school.

The player looked too tall and too gangly to me especially for a 10, but despite that he had what that Blackrock centre possessed years before, amazing natural talent.

That gangly youngster has now emerged as possibly the best outhalf in world rugby - Johnny Sexton.

With Dan Carter struggling to regain the wonderful fruits of his youth, and more than likely set to retire after next year's World Cup, it is now the Irish outhalf who would wear the No 10 jersey in most rugby pundits current World XV.

GREAT

This week Sexton was shortlisted for the IRB World Player of the year award - the only player from this side of the equator to do so, and there is a great chance of him winning the prestigious award, something even O'Driscoll did not achieve.

Ireland has been blessed with quality players in this pivotal position over many decades, and in their prime, players like Jackie Kyle, Tony Ward, Paul Dean, Ollie Campbell, Ronan O'Gara and now Sexton would have felt at home in any All Black or South African side.

And while young Springbok Andre Pollard will be a world star in the future, how South Africa would have loved Sexton's control and tactical kicking abilities last weekend.

Sexton's use of the boot both from the tee and out of hand was first class in its orchestration, often pinning the Springbok back-three into the corners.

But Sexton is more than just a kicker; it is his defence, leadership, self-belief, bravery and calm under pressure that has propelled him to become one of the most influential players in the world. The fact that the Racing Metro kingpin returns to Leinster next year must have delighted his old Leinster coach Joe Schmidt.

Schmidt will now have Sexton (pictured, left) all to himself in a World Cup year and that is vital to Ireland's chances.

When I first landed on these shores nearly 25 years ago and without being arrogant, only Irish hooker Keith Wood could probably have laid claim to a start in a World XV, and even then he would have had to crawl over World Cup winners Sean Fitzpatrick and Phil Kearns but it shows just how far Irish rugby has progressed.

Today pencil in the names of Sexton, Conor Murray, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Seán O'Brien, Cian Healy and perhaps Peter O'Mahoney as players that would push for selection on any World XV selection.

Sexton and Murray have become one of the best 9-10 combinations in the game and when you throw in Heaslip at No 8, you have three wonderful decision-makers in the most important axis in the game.

Last week we saw Ireland defeat South Africa and the win was as much about intelligent rugby as it was passion.

For years we had witnessed Ireland's passion in big games, where Ireland literally threw the 'kitchen sink' at the opposition for as long as they could.

Morale victories were plenty, but actual ones few.

Last week was different, Ireland outsmarted South Africa, and they had a superior game-plan combined with passion. This weekend Schmidt must add clinical to that list.

Under Schmidt Ireland has now set a very high barrier for themselves, for years Ireland could pull out one-off performances but they struggled to be consistent, but since his arrival this Irish team should have beaten New Zealand, won a Six Nations Championship including a win in Paris and they have now defeated a Springbok side at full strength.

This weekend against Georgia Ireland must prove that they are more ruthless and clinical than before.

For years Ireland felt the pressure of raised expectations, the favourite tag did not sit well with them and they struggled to put lesser teams to the sword.

Consequently teams like Fiji, Samoa, Canada and others would come to Ireland and stay in matches far longer than they probably deserved too.

We can all remember watching the 2007 World Cup through our hands as the brave Georgians laid serge to Ireland's line in a game they could and should have actually won.

Schmidt is not so forgiving as previous Irish coaches, he will want whatever Irish team that he selects this weekend to put the 'pedal to the metal' he will expect Ireland to give the opposition respect, but in reality a whipping.

Two weeks ago we heard from the USA Eagles how far they have come in the professional game and at times they played well against New Zealand in the most unlikely of rugby cities, Chicago.

New Zealand weathered the storm then simply tour them apart. That was often what spelt the difference between New Zealand and other countries including Ireland - they were ruthless.

Just because it was the USA and just because they were expected to win, the All Blacks treat all games as being equal, Ireland must do the same.

Obviously this is a great chance for Schmidt to look at his various combinations, after all he will field his best team against Australia and into the next Six Nations Championship, it is also a chance for fringe players to impress their coach, and like with Andrew Trimble last year, Schmidt picks on form and an ability to train and not on reputation.

If the current bad weather continues expect the visitors to be strong up front but lack the flair outwide, what we expect from Ireland is to be ruthless.

 

Sexton and Murray have become one of the best 9-10 combinations and when you throw in Heaslip at No 8, you have three wonderful decision-makers in the most important axis.


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