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Friday 27 April 2018

Oz tour chance for Joe to view options

Jonathan Sexton in action for Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton in action for Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile

There is a long time to go before the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, but Irish Coach Joe Schmidt will already be pencilling in games that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray won't be playing.

In fact, in my opinion there is a strong case for leaving both these key players at home for the summer tour to Australia.

Once again, Sexton had a bullseye painted on his back last weekend, as the Saracens players obviously targeted the Leinster playmaker, with what might be described as some marginal tackling.

It is a rare sight these days to see Sexton, who relishes the physical game, making it through a match unscathed.

When Sexton takes a little longer to get to his feet these days, the crowd all take a collective breath, until word reverberates around the crowd - "Not to worry, Johnny's OK".

Munster’s Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster’s Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile

Sexton will get a rest this weekend, as lowly-ranked Zebre roll into town for a Pro 14 clash, because Leinster need him fit in mind and body for their European push.

Schmidt, though, must be wondering if back-to-back end of season tours is really what is best for his two key playmakers.

There was some criticism this year that Eddie Jones had pushed his players too hard after a Lions tour to New Zealand, and in some quarters they argued that was the main reason behind England's poor showing in this year's Six Nations - in essence that they had too much rugby.

Tough

While Ireland's players are well man-managed thanks to the IRFU central contract system that allows players breaks, a tour to the heat and hard grounds of Australia after a very long season with Ireland and now with Leinster will be tough for Sexton.

The same applies to Murray, himself still involved with Munster in two competitions.

Sexton has already indicated that he wants to go on tour "Down Under" but Schmidt must also be counting the big games where he can assess Sexton and Murray's realistic back-ups - and those games will quickly run out.

The two halves are the most important decision-makers on the field, and at the moment Murray and Sexton are in my opinion the best 9 and 10 combination in the world.

That gives Ireland a real chance of doing something special in Japan. But the continued welfare of these two players is vital.

Schmidt needs to determine who he thinks his back-up 9 and 10 will be in just over a year, and that doesn't invovle 15-minute cameo appearances when the game is already over.

They need to start big international games as well. These players need to build up a memory bank of big games and big wins, and when Schmidt starts looking at how many of these games he can afford to start the likes of Joey Carbery or Luke McGrath in before Japan, then time is against him.

In November, the All Blacks arrive in Dublin so Schmidt will target his best team for that game.

Then another Six Nations campaign will begin, where Ireland will want to continue a winning momentum, especially with France and England at home.

Throw in a couple of warm-up matches and the World Cup is quickly upon you. So if Schmidt thinks that he needs his fringe players in key positions to have a few big games under their belt, then in my opinion that starts in Australia.

Just look at the number of players that came through from last year's off-season tour to the USA and Japan, when the other Irish players were away touring with the Lions.

Schmidt is ambitious and will want to keep his team winning but the tour to Australia is also about looking forward to the World Cup and getting the more inexperienced players or those returning from injury decent and meaningful time on the pitch.

No disrespect to some nations, but some of the easier games against lower-ranked nations simply do not allow Schmidt to find out if his fringe players can face the pressure of delivering in a really big match.

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