herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

Sexton holds the key for Ireland

Ireland's strategy in the hands of their Gaelic football contingent

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Jamie Heaslip after the France game
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Jamie Heaslip after the France game
Rob Kearney
SEXTON, PAYNE

IT is a simple fact. You play to your superior strengths - real, not imagined.

When all the hype and hoo-ha has passed in the lead-up to this Ireland-England international, the idea pedalled that this is about entertainment is naive and irrelevant.

All that matter comes Sunday tea-time is that 'the auld enemy' is beaten back across the water.

If you want style, take yourself to Paris.

This will be a battle in which every blade of grass will be contested without regard for body.

To this point, Ireland have been under-whelming in totalling two tries from their first two rounds of the Six Nations.

They have tended to keep adding the three-pointers to build leads and build pressure too.

PRESSURE

Whatever about the outcome, the intention has been to play a pressure game, to apply it and not release it until there are points put on the board.

There is sound reason behind Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's delivery of a dominant kicking game.

First, Schmidt has at his hand the best kicking half-backs in world rugby.

Second, his chosen quintet from jerseys 11 to 15 have all played at full-back where domination of the air is the first principle.

Rob Kearney has served out two British & Irish Lions tours in the position.

Heck, centres Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are still held out as playing in their next best positions, Henshaw in his third best to accommodate Payne and the overall game-plan.

Then, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo, the wing wizards, have been known to dabble at full-back where the need for coaches to have them more involved gave them life there.

Looking back to France, Schmidt stacked his bench with Munster full-back Felix Jones and Leinster auxillary back Ian Madigan, a man not unfamiliar with the role of the 15.

This week, Schmidt will have revealed by lunchtime today whether he has been convinced by Luke Fitzgerald's form for his province on the left wing against Zebre that he is ready to return to the international arena.

It all points in one direction - up.

Ireland will look to the airways to rain down pressure on England's chosen back three and Stuart Lancaster has readied his men by releasing Jonny May in order to make room for Jack Nowell.

He already has Anthony Watson, who holds last-man-back experience with his club Bath.

Moreover, this has to be the tallest Ireland back division in the history of the game.

Half-backs Murray and Sexton stand tall at 6'2" as do Payne and Simon Zebo with Bowe and Henshaw scaling 6'3" and Kearney the shortest at 6'1".

At a time when size means so much, Schmidt has a backline which compares to any in the game.

The aerial threats come all across the field as exemplified by Henshaw's towering take through the middle against South Africa in November.

There is the often used cross-ball to Bowe on the right and the ability of Kearney to fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

The reference to general handling and high fielding in Gaelic football as a powerful tool for Irish rugby cannot be overstated.

The fact is Kearney, for Louth, Bowe, for Monaghan, and Henshaw, for Westmeath all played two years of minor inter-county football and all did it from midfield, the land of the big men.

NO HARM

"I suppose it's definitely done me no harm," said Bowe. "In rugby, I suppose you would sit and wait for the ball to come to you a lot. In Gaelic football, it's all about attacking the ball.

"Maybe, that's something that has helped me. It's an area of my game I pride myself on and work a lot on and it's good to be able to exploit it."

The percentage ball in the air has been the staple diet for Bowe in this Six Nations. It isn't pretty. But, it can be pretty effective.

"To be part of a winning team, you'd be happy to do whatever," he said. "The first two games of this campaign, yeah, I suppose I've had to do other areas of the back-three job that are very important and certainly areas Joe likes to concentrate a lot on.

"As a back-three player, his wingers have to be able to play 13 and have to be able to play 15, have to be good in the air, good at competing for the ball.

"Certainly, in the last couple of weeks I've had to do a lot of that against the French and the Italians.

"They're big upfront, big strong men, so, maybe, putting the ball behind them and turning them, putting on that pressure and trying to force turnovers is something I can try to use."

Ireland were particularly productive at restarts against the French in a retrieving tactic supervised by the accuracy of Sexton.

"Normally, we would just go up to the line and it would be just Johnny (Sexton) would call where we're going, where he might see a bit of space or where he thinks might be an area to attack," added Bowe.

Afterall, the 'Garryowen' is Irish!

 

Kearney, Bowe and Henshaw all played two years of minor inter-county

Promoted articles

Entertainment News