Gerry Thornley: Sexton is as important to Ireland as O’Driscoll was

Drop goal against France is probably his most memorable moment in a green jersey

Gerry Thornley and Gavin Cummiskey give their post-match reaction to Ireland's defeat of France in their opening game of the Six Nations Championships in Paris. Video: Gavin Cummiskey

 

Johnny Sexton’s importance to the Irish team has never been more acute, and never been more ably demonstrated than in Paris last Saturday. In part due to his position, he is now as integral to this Irish team as Brian O’Driscoll was in his pomp, and like so many Irish outhalves before him, namely Eric Elwood, David Humphreys and Ronan O’Gara, he could be about to enter the thirtysomething golden years.

Okay, Saturday’s Sexton-inspired endgame was pretty exceptional – only O’Gara’s drop goal against Northampton in November 2011 at Thomond Park is remotely comparable. Then, from the moment Tomas O’Leary put the ball in to the final scrum on the 77 minute, 55-second mark, to when O’Gara kicked his drop goal from 42 metres, that 41-phase drive took five minutes and 45 seconds.   

Sexton’s contribution to the 41-phase drive over the course of five minutes and 13 seconds – from the moment he kicked his 22 metre restart on 77 minutes, 28 seconds, to when he landed his drop goal on 82 minutes, 41 seconds – was even greater.

He must have been formulating a plan as Anthony Belleau addressed the 78th-minute penalty which could have pushed France four points clear but which, reminiscent of Jean-Marc Doussain’s miss against Ireland from an easier point in the same stadium four years previously, the replacement French outhalf missed.

It was Sexton who caught the ball from Belleau’s missed penalty on 77 minutes 20 seconds, before unerringly hanging his restart close to the touchline for Iain Henderson to claim on the run. Every Irish player who finished the game made a contribution to the drive, but Conor Murray’s influence was also enormous, for despite again playing the full 80, he was at the base of nearly every ruck save for the one good carry himself.

Ballsy kick

Mostly he passed to one-off forwards, or when Robbie Henshaw or Bundee Aki stepped in as first receiver. Aside from the restart, Sexton orchestrated one wraparound, from which he had to straighten and make a strong carry of his own. There was also a clear-out when he realised a ruck was under-resourced, and then of course, with the clock in the red, he unerringly found Keith Earls with that ballsy cross-field kick which, with the winger’s take and carry, inched Ireland into French territory.

Even then, Sexton had to take a time out to stretch out his dead left leg, before returning to his feet. In all, he made 11 passes in that drive with that distinctive, fully extended, golfer’s swing style of his, before then having the presence of mind, and belief in his own range, to call for the pass from Murray and have the distance from 45 metres when most Irish people would have instinctively screamed “No-oooo”.     

That same fierce will to win, which has helped earn him something of a grumpy reputation, had shone through. It was a team drop goal, largely driven by the best half-back pairing in Europe, and instigated and finished by one man.

In his 69th cap, it is probably Sexton’s most memorable moment in an Irish jersey, of which, in a way, there have been relatively few. Yes, he was outstanding in masterminding that win in the same ground to clinch the Six Nations title in 2014, and was again superb despite an enforced 10-week break which ruled him out of the opening game in the defence of the title a year later.

Of course, Sexton has contributed handsomely to many other notable wins, over the All Blacks, Australia, South Africa, England and Argentina, as well as France, although he hasn’t always been on the pitch at the end of them – ie Chicago. 

Yet, most of his more standout moments seem to have been in blue or red, rather than green. He truly arrived on the scene after Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam when replacing Felipe Contepomi in Leinster’s semi-final win over Munster, and then steered them to the first of their three titles in the final over Leicester at Murrayfield, which featured a drop goal slightly longer than last Saturday’s.

His most lauded performance until now was probably when inspiring Leinster to that greatest of European Cup final comebacks against Northampton in Cardiff in 2011, and he was again masterful at the helm in the 2012 retention of that trophy.

In his five Lions Test starts, he has three wins, a draw and just one defeat, being one of the key figures in a series win in Australia and, arguably, an even more commendable drawn series against the All Blacks. So that’s two Six Nations titles, a historic win over the All Blacks, three European Cups and two successful Lions tours. That’s some record.

Greatest outhalves

He will ultimately be regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest outhalves, and the extent to which will largely depend on what he and this Irish squad achieve in the next couple of Six Nations and the 2019 World Cup. Now 32, he will be 34 come the next World Cup. He and Murray are vital to Ireland’s hopes in that time, and yet there is a need to do as much possible to ensure Sexton makes it to Japan in good health, while also investing in Joey Carbery, so as to lessen the reliance on Sexton, as the All Blacks did with Dan Carter up to the 2007 World Cup.

For the time being, Joe Schmidt will want to start him in every game in this Six Nations, and understandably so. Ireland played their get-out-of-jail card on Saturday, but with England and Wales each having procured bonus points while also boosting their points’ differentials, there’s now an onus on Ireland to do the same, starting next Saturday at home to Italy.

Otherwise, Ireland may have to win all five games just to win the title. Either way, they’re going to need their main man as much as ever. 

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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