Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland’s new Holy Trinity key to Six Nations hopes
Blossoming Murray-Sexton-Aki axis adds an exciting dimension to Joe Schmidt’s side
Bundee Aki and Johnathan Sexton are forming a blossoming relationship for Ireland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
“Go left,” Johnny Sexton instructed his scrumhalf.
Just before the Conor Murray try, created by Conor Murray, on Saturday Sexton purposely shifted the game away from his direct control.
This turned the majority of Italian defenders into spectators as a lovely try was created by a Murray and Dan Leavy inter-exchange on the short side.
Calls for extra decision makers in Ireland’s backline are misguided.
They have always been there and are now delivering.
The Italy game provided two alternatives - Murray and Bundee Aki - standing at first receiver.
Johnny Sexton seems more at peace with every facet of his game, even relinquishing control of some of the directional play.
Sexton will sit and fire players at the opposition until a weakness appears. As we saw in Paris, when he waited 20-odd phases before the cross field punt to Earls, he has patience and nerve in abundance.
But Sexton is allowing Murray and Aki take the lead now, knowing he will get the ball in a better position to cause lasting damage.
Or he will become the ideal decoy.
The roles are alternated as Sexton sees fit. Two seasons ago Ireland were overly reliant on him. It became obvious and defences would use the knowledge that almost every attack was going through him at first receiver.
Ireland have adopted a more opportunistic approached with a more balanced use of the ball.
Also, the team kept moving forward, with guile, when Joey Carbery arrived at outhalf.
Murray at first receiver was an enhanced ploy to open Italy up. See his try down the short side. The blue defenders stacked in front of Sexton and with only two players to his right he made a decision that gave his teammates less than two seconds to prepare.
But they knew it could happen. A Schmidt team is always well drilled.
“Go left,” Sexton instructed, just before Murray passed to Leavy and looped for the return.
The ‘audible’ requires a collective readjustment. This was a pre-planned attack, used a few times on Saturday, with the scrumhalf acting as play-maker. Murray creates a four-on-two situation in the tight channel by feeding Keith Earls, who is cleverly tracking behind his Munster teammate.
The great Alan Gaffney always says, ‘Touch the ball twice and you are breaking the line, get it a third time and you are under the posts.’
If this was the All Blacks we’d be lauding their ability to take the opportunity.
Ireland deserve similar praise.
Last season I hung a column on the long-range passing accuracy by George Ford and Owen Farrell to create Elliot Daly’s try to beat Wales. This little interchange is just as valuable a skill-set.
Aki’s arrival as an international second-five-eight is even more impressive. His ability to stand up defenders and make the correct decision - it took a few errors to find his range - is superb to watch.
The break for Earls’ try, his footwork and crucially not passing with Tommaso Boni in no-man’s land, shows his comfort on the ball, accelerating into the space before a nicely weighted assist.
This looks easy, just a sharp outside break, but think about the volume of decisions and intricate body movements that happen in mere seconds, all correct, all decisive and all instinctive.
For any young outside back in Ireland, here’s the standard that needs to be attained. Split-second decision making.
Bundee Aki is that standard now. No one else in Ireland camp has this combination of explosiveness and awareness.
Robbie Henshaw was incredible in all facets of play, benefiting from the opportunities that Aki created. Chris Farrell is likely to fill the void, and hopefully pick up where he left off against Argentina.
But Ireland are building something unique with Sexton, Aki and Murray.
Connacht’s great Pro 12 winning season showed Aki’s brilliance in a looser, play-as- it- comes system, when he was encouraged to attempt the spectacular.
Now he is operating, just as effectively, in the more structured Schmidt team.
He prompts Sexton to slip into the second receiver role, out of the back, and this opens up a world of possibility for the Irish attack.
Will we see more of this against Wales and Scotland? Italy was the perfect match to incorporate it into the game plan. A successful first iteration but it was built on a dominant Irish tight five and Wales may not be as forthcoming. Waiting for the opportunity could be as important as the execution. There is evidence now that Sexton need not be the fulcrum of every Irish attack.
See Stockdale’s first try. Nearly every team including Ireland used to be guilty of becoming try line focused once they entered the opposition 22. A second row at first receiver passing out the back to the outhalf was not something we would associate with green jerseys in this area of the park.
But here it is on 59 minutes with Dev Toner to Carbery as Ireland ran another superb attacking move.
Italy had conceded two tries off hard carrying centres - Henshaw and Aki - taking outside to in lines so they are aligned to deny a repeat score when Aki runs hard at them after Toner passes to Carbery.
It was a decoy. Show a team your hand, do something different the next time. Rob Kearney and Earls hold their depth, to remain as viable options, as Stockdale comes from behind Carbery to dive over untouched.
That, to me, is a wonderful try. So many moving parts. Italy having been beaten twice close to the ruck, were biased to defending where they think they are weak.
Carbery’s call makes sure Toner doesn’t just carry as a training ground move runs smoothly and they attack where Italy are not ready to defend.
Joey still has to pick the right pass but Stockdale’s timing makes it an easier decision.
It shows Ireland can score anyway they need to. The move started with the lineout maul. When that didn’t force a way over they changed up and picked Italy apart.
But, again, it all comes off a dominant pack.
Ireland have only squeezed past the 10th ranked side in the world and trashed the 14th at home.
Wales, even in their injury ravaged state, bring a completely different challenge to Dublin on Saturday week. The packs tend to break even so the game may not be decided by Aki or Murray contributions as player makers.
It might require another drop goal.
England produced a powerful display at Twickenham, looked in utter control, and still it was a one score game that required perfect defending at the finish. If Sam Underhill doesn’t make that tackle on Scott Williams the result could have been flipped.
England probably still win the game but Wales were competitive without playing well at all.
Ireland’s three penalties conceded was not the stat of the weekend. Wales conceded two over the 80 minutes. That’s how they stayed with the champions, by largely taking Owen Farrell’s boot out of the equation, as England gave up 10 penalties and could have seen victory stolen from them as happened at the 2015 World Cup.
France are at the other end of the spectrum, giving Scotland seven penalties in the last 25 minutes to lose by six points.
So, Wales and Ireland - combining for five penalties in round two - promises a misery game of rugby at the Aviva stadium.
If Ireland are unable to dominate in the tight five, like they did against Italy and France for large parts, we will see a continuation of the Sexton - Murray - Aki attack.
But I expect a totally different contest. A fixture that tends to define Ireland’s Six Nations.
The tournament is only coming to life.