Wednesday 13 December 2017

Keith Wood: The heat will be on Sexton for French test

Outhalf is being asked to carry hopes of a nation against France

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton in action during a squad training session ahead of their RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game against France
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton in action during a squad training session ahead of their RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game against France

Waiting for the team selection yesterday before writing this piece led me to thinking - apart from a couple of players, will the selection make any real difference to the way Ireland play?

It is an unusual question but it seems that Schmidt is unwilling to risk trying anything unless he has key cogs in place.

Barnstorming runs from Sean O'Brien aside, Ireland's expansive play now seems to revolve entirely around the selection of Johnny Sexton at ten.

So it is at once exciting and daunting that we have him back. The ability of this team to break down defences seems to rely on Sexton pulling the strings and I'm not a fan of just one player carrying so much weight.


My belief is that, even with Sexton restored, Ireland will continue with its conservative style for the time being.

The guy needs to get his feet under the table before he is relaunched back to his best. Ireland, under Schmidt, are all about winning. The style can wait until the team is ready.

Rome was a case in point. Ireland played narrow and won, by dint of excellence in holding onto the ball and taking their chances.

Italy looked subdued and unable to raise a spark. Their pack was their least competitive I've seen in the Six Nations and once Ireland stopped making silly errors at the end of the first half, Italy were pummelled into fatigue.

The tries came from pressure and tiredness in a manner more to be admired than extolled, a rugby version of the famous '1-0 to the Arsenal'.

It was a good workmanlike performance that never quite lived up to the incessant babbling of the stadium announcer.

bigger test

I, like most irish fans, wanted to have our cake and eat it. Schmidt was content to 'Let us eat cake'.

Job done, no one injured, let's move onto the bigger test.

Subsequently, I watched France out-kick a Scottish team to death.

Scotland earned that odious tag of being brave and France just did enough to win.

Both winners have an ability to play so much better and yet on the first weekend chose not to do so.

They were pragmatic and blunt and efficient. They risked nothing in their manner of play - for they didn't need to.

Tomorrow, both sides need to, so thankfully Johnny's back. If last week was workmanlike, tomorrow will be brutal.

Intensity piled onto intensity will be the starting point but the reward will go to the team that's willing to try something different, to see the whole field, to not only have the balls to make the decision but also the accuracy to make it happen.

But it will not be free-flowing. Instead, a couple of opportune moments grasped will be the difference.

With Sexton on the field Ireland have a general to make that happen but he also has a huge target on his back.

Make his life hell and Ireland don't have the same smarts or ability to make the calculated risks that Schmidt favours.

Sexton has not played for three months and even-though he has serious mental strength, he will be rusty and will make mistakes.


So other players have to share the load. This is not as easily done, as half of the team are on their way back from injury and that worries me somewhat. This has to be all about the collective.

To counterbalance that, France were off the pace again last Saturday. Under pressure ,their fitness wanes in the ten minutes before halftime and the second half of the second half.

These games mostly finish with just a few points in the difference. It will be no different tomorrow - Ireland by five.

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