Johnny Sexton refuses to be intimidated by sight of oncoming chariot
Absence of sidekick Murray puts pressure on Ireland outhalf to bring his best to Aviva
A purple-eyed Johnny Sexton during Ireland training. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The last vestiges of hope were scattered by Joe Schmidt’s latest Ireland XV. No Conor Murray. No way to dress that up (maybe nothing, but it’s worth noting that Munster have added South Africa scrumhalf Abrie Griesel to their European panel).
Schmidt did make a bold statement by dropping Devin Toner and promoting the more dynamic Iain Henderson. Also, many former players and coaches have quietly expressed the need to see Jared Payne at fullback for Ireland. Rob Kearney’s knee problem permits that.
But Murray, the injury being described as “bruising on bruising”, seems irreplaceable.
“I think they are stacking up better and better,” said Schmidt.
“Unfortunately, by getting Anthony Watson and Billy Vunipola back while we are bleeding a few guys that offer us experience and real quality, particularly, obviously, in Conor, the depth of what they have got is formidable. It is difficult across the park to see where the weaknesses lie. We are going to have to be at our utmost best to be in the competition on Saturday.”
Like when Ireland lost 21-9 to an All Blacks side intent on revenge in Dublin last November.
Being that good might not be enough. Only 17 minutes of Johnny Sexton that day.
Victory number 19, potentially as emphatic as England’s 42-6 demolition at Lansdowne Road in 2003, is the looming threat. No hope at all then. Just after Schmidt departed, Ireland’s purple-eyed outhalf entered the room.
Frustrations remain from Cardiff last Friday night. Sexton missed eight minutes for a head injury assessment (which he passed) and 10 minutes due to a sin-binning for his try-saving tackle on Jonathan Davies.
“I couldn’t have done anything different,” he said. “I was totally trapped under Davies. My legs were wrapped over. They were holding us in over the ball for a lot of the game.
“Technically, yeah, it was a yellow card but it wasn’t intentional.”
Wales won those 18 minutes 15-3. The final score being 22-9.
“We were warned before the game about tackling people not in the ruck or on the fringes of the ruck. It happened two or three times and it just went unnoticed, even though we were told not to do it.”
Hope, Sexton highlighted, comes in the form of insider knowledge as the two men who coach Leinster and Ireland built this current England team.
“They have been together for the guts of six years now. Obviously Stuart [Lancaster] and Andy [Farrell] built this team after the 2011 World Cup. They have stuck together through ups and downs and are reaping the rewards of that now.”
There is a growing argument that England are better than New Zealand. Or will be. Their proposed meeting at Twickenham in November 2018 will decide all of that.
But none of this intimidates Sexton.
“Wales had England pretty much beaten. They obviously lost the game on one or two little things. We didn’t produce our best against Wales – a lot of guts and effort, just lacked that clinical edge.”
Robbie Henshaw engaging incorrectly with Rory Best gets another airing.
“We were going to score that try whether Robbie does what he does or not. It was going to be a try. If I hole the conversion it could have been a very different story; we would be going for the championship. All of a sudden we are really good.
“But sometimes you learn more from your defeats. That’s what we’ve tried to do. It’s been a harsh week with video reviews.
“I know you guys will shake your heads but it does come down to small moments in games. France and Wales should have beaten England but they didn’t because they didn’t take their chances.”
Like Ireland failed to do at crucial moments in Murrayfield and Cardiff.
“We have worked since Joe came in not to be this team, but to be the team that fights for the championship. We have nothing to play for but stopping them doing something. We don’t want to be in this situation but we are, so we have to enjoy it, then worry about how we become the team that England and the All Blacks are after the championship.”
Just before Chicago, Sexton said, “To stop their winning run would be really Irish.” And, against all expectations and odds, New Zealand were denied a 19th victory. Same again seems equally impossible.
Especially without Murray. At least Sexton is starting.
Hope lingers, barely, which is really Irish, on this the most Paddywhackery weekend of them all.