Saturday 16 December 2017

Sexton: I just want to win

Battle for Ireland's fly-half berth endures but good of the team still comes first over his rivalry with O'Gara

TWO into one won't go. This is a basic mathematical fact. Ireland coach Declan Kidney is charged with making this impossibility workable in the national environment.

Kidney has the overall responsibility for keeping two world-class fly-halfs in line, when England, Scotland and Ireland's next opponents, Italy, cannot call on one.

Leinster's Jonathan Sexton and Munster's Ronan O'Gara are ambitious operators, each burdened with the burning belief that he is better than the other.

While they must agree to disagree, Kidney must take up a position and stick with it until there is undeniable proof that he is right or wrong. Only then can Ireland move forward with a coherent game plan.

Sexton is keen to tow the party line. He has matured well from the days when he used to beat a path to Michael Cheika's door at Leinster to let him know he was the man when a certain Felipe Contepomi was doing quite nicely thank you very much.

For now, Sexton is the man for Leinster and for Ireland. He guided his country into a six-point lead (21-15) with five minutes to go at the Aviva Stadium just over two weeks ago when the remarkable George North ploughed through Tommy Bowe and Gordon D'Arcy for a try that reduced the difference to the minimum.

Immediately, O'Gara and Eoin Reddan were stripped and ready for action. There was one point in it with four minutes on the clock when they entered. It all came down to Ireland's passive defence, not what Sexton had done, not what O'Gara did. "Declan made the change. He brought on Ronan and Eoin to close out the game. That was it," said Sexton, now fully recovered from a slight groin injury.

"We are judging this Irish team on one game. That was the first game of the championship. We were a couple of minutes away from winning it. We were together for one week before it."

The fact that Ireland held the lead when he was called ashore and lost it within four minutes was little comfort to Sexton. This is where personal ambition gives way to team unity. There is no consolation in losing.

"I review different aspects of my performance.

"That won't be an issue when I look at the video. I look at the decisions I made on the day. That won't be a reason for being happy or upset after the game," he said.

"Ireland winning is the most important thing. If you ask any player, that's the case. Although we were winning when I left the pitch I wasn't happy when we lost the game -- the opposite actually."

Since then, the cloud of collective responsibility has hung over the Irish squad and it has lingered longer than necessary in the aftermath of the Paris fiasco.

Italy bring a very macho brand of rugby to the international arena.

They have two clubs in Benetton Treviso and Aironi making strides from their involvement in the PRO12 League.

Sexton has not fallen for the theory that Ireland finally figured Italy out at the World Cup, rather that the mistakes made in Rome were repaired in New Zealand.


"If you look at the (Six Nations) game we played in Rome last year, we actually created five or six opportunities. We just didn't take them. We dropped the ball within two or three metres of the try line. We threw ball into touch.

"Against Italy in the World Cup, we were more clinical. We took our chances. I didn't see a massive difference in the performances. We were just accurate against Italy at the World Cup."

While Ireland have a number of X-factor players who can turn a game, Italy are dependent on, arguably, the best number eight in the world. Sergio Parisse carries the fight, the workload and the burden of brilliance that he shows every time he takes to the field.

He did so for Stade Francais against Toulon in the French Top-14 on Saturday night.

"He is a class player. He is one of the best number eights in the world. He is definitely their talisman," conceded Sexton.

"When he does come around the corner, we're going to have to look at stopping him at source from the base of the scrum. He is their massive strength."

For all of Parisse's super-human athleticism and footballing intelligence, rugby is not a one-man game.

Sometimes it can take two to get one job done. Sexton knows this. So does O'Gara.

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