Ireland’s hopes still hinge on their porcelain doll Johnny Sexton
Outhalf ran show for 40 imperious minutes before being wrapped in cotton wool again
Johnny Sexton stabs through a kick for Peter O’Mahony to score Ireland’s second try in Kobe. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Successful Schmidt sides - all of them up until 2019 - needed Johnny Sexton to guide them from the start, middle and glorious ending.
It’s an undisguisable fact central to the ongoing malaise.
“After Scotland we felt we were in a brilliant place, after Japan we were pretty low. Today, we did a job,” said Sexton before singing off the party hymn sheet once again.
Samoa next. One game at a time. He rarely avoids a pointed question: can Ireland reach the performance level needed to beat South Africa or New Zealand? Neither captain nor coach could answer with any clarity.
“Look,” said captain. “It’s very hard to say after a game like that.”
“I concur,” said coach.
The problem remains the same.
News of Joey Carbery’s “ankle irritation” was delivered via Japanese volunteers handing out team sheets. After a quick scramble to pigeon the information into wider consciousness everyone settled in for The Johnny Sexton Show.
Tactical decision: 40 minutes is all we were getting. 60 minutes is promised against the Samoans. Not a second more for Irish rugby’s porcelain doll to ensure 80 minutes is possible come the World Cup quarter-final.
After his latest calming tutorial in outhalf play, it’s more apparent than ever that any hope of this Ireland side going where no Irish team has ever been is dependent on Sexton’s fully flexible limbs and ligaments.
The risk will always be to remove him. There has been precious reward from using Jack Carty at this tournament. It’s hardly the Connacht outhalf’s fault. Capped age 27. Tossed into the Lion’s den - The Ecopa in Shizuoka - for his first competitive start.
And now this. Carty was not tasked with guiding Ireland past Russia, a team ranked 20th in the world. Nothing of the sort. Sexton had delivered. Sexton had directed others here, there and everywhere for 40 crisp minutes that yielded one pretty and two ugly tries.
Right out the gate, he went big. The Rob Kearney try can be found on page one of a dog eared playbook.
“I had a good feeling it was going to work,” said Sexton. “Why not use it when you can go 7-0 up?”
The Schmidt way, the Sexton way - which are one in the same - has never been complicated. It doesn’t matter if you can see it coming once it is executed correctly.
Sexton plucked the Peter O’Mahony try from his mind’s eye with a lovely toe-poke that ruined poor Kirill Golosnitskiy’s lower leg when wedged between post and Munster enforcer.
“Always the plan,” said Sexton of his half-time removal. “I’m good.”
It took Carty 21 increasingly nervy minutes before producing a moment of genuine class to deliver the vital bonus point. The chip over Russians - there seemed like no other way through them - bounced perfectly for Keith Earls to unleash Andrew Conway.
Irish sprinters finally burning grass.
Only then did the masses of green clad 20-somethings guarantee hoarse voices come breakfast. They JR-Railed towards The Misaki decked in party gear - every Irish cliché imaginable on view - with most of them not bothering to check the weather forecast. But they weren’t dampened by rain. The atrocious absence of penetrative rugby, once Sexton departed, muted them.
Not even Freddie Mercury’s loudspeaker yell could lift the collective spirit.
Ireland needed the frontrow reserves to muscle up a deeply frustrated showing by the Irish pack (Rhys Ruddock being fully exempt of criticism).
Carty has earned respect. On 75 minutes he showed real courage to clip a 22-metre drop goal into Bundee Aki’s arms. This triggered the Garry Ringrose try.
Skills and party tricks aplenty, he has proved himself an ideal back up 10. Nothing more. Now he is building up all this experience, there are some fine years ahead on the international stage. Just not now.
Sexton utterly dominated the first half. Not so much his fearless distribution inside the danger zone or making full frontal tackles.
Not the masterful cross field kicks in quick succession to give Earls and Conway a scent of the try line. More so his chatter out the side of his mouth at breaks in play to accept an Aki request or wink at the intended receiver, and especially his organisation when the pack were still punching yards into the Russian defence.
“You can see him influencing what happens next,” said Russia’s Welsh coach Lyn Jones. “All credit to him. I can’t believe he’s 34. It feels like yesterday he was just starting his career.”
Only a handful of outhalves on the planet can control and run a game as play is happening. Carbery looks like he is one already. Not that we have enough evidence to say this with certainty.