Johnny Sexton’s ability to play hurt saves Ireland’s skin
Outhalf lands crucial penalty moments after two heavy collisions in quick succession
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton kicks a penalty against Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Johnny Sexton leaves the pitch with a chest injury late in the Six Nations game against Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Clearly the success and failure of Irish rugby during this transitionary period continues to revolve around his well being, his ability to play hurt.
It helps that no more stubborn a man has worn the green jersey. Not many of his predecessors possessed comparable poise either. Four pressure kicks from four attempts. Rushed for 50 metres off two clean line breaks. Made eight tackles, all far too high for comfort.
Sure enough on 70 minutes the worst-case scenario seemed to happen.
Again. After two heavy collisions in quick succession, the Ireland outhalf held hand to head while lying on the ground. Play moved on, so he got up, hands on knees then to chest, before returning to the defensive line. When play stopped, ice was applied to the back of his neck.
As Keith Earls was forced off for a head injury assessment, which was confirmed by Joe Schmidt as a “concussive impact”, Sexton walked slowly to the halfway line here he restarted play after Rhys Priestland had put Wales 16-13 ahead.
Within seconds Ireland were offered the chance to draw level. Within a minute of that successful kick he was called ashore, face scrunched up in pain, right arm clutching chest. Alongside him, Rory Best, his new captain, planted him with a manly kiss.
Yet any fresh fears of a Sexton injury, head or otherwise, were cleanly dismissed by the Ireland head coach, who stated “Johnny is 95 percent likely to play” in Paris this Saturday.
“Johnny is sore without a doubt . . . Jamie Roberts didn’t help that by throwing himself at our gainline constantly and very effectively.”
“Johnny was okay,” Schmidt declared. “Dare I say it, there was a degree of let’s look after him for next week. Once he put us level we just felt ‘let’s get him off.’ It’s a five-match tournament, it’s incredibly intense and we are going to need him. His mental strength is such that it’s not something that I would even have too many second thoughts about.”
The now obligatory early dunt came from Luke Charteris. But maybe he’s heeding the advice of former teammates as Sexton hadn’t avoided any late hits and took plenty of breathers, out on the wing, after heavy contact.
His conversion of Conor Murray’s made it 13-0.
Wales , via their surging scrum which forced Tommy O’Donnell to stay bound, allowed big Toby Faletau pick and carry Sexton over the try line.
And it was Sexton’s his unsteady hand that ensured Ireland avoided an opening weekend defeat. Even his shaky touch is enough to further Ireland’s cause.
“Who’s reffing the game?” he snapped on 63 minutes.
Jérôme Garcès: “Me.”
“Then what’s he doing here all the time?”
Wales captain Sam Warburton disappeared back into the gloom. Here was the cranky Sexton which every Ireland team, past and ideally far into the future, needs him to be.
On 64 minutes he burst the Welsh line, standing as third distributor, to fling a lovely left-handed pass to Trimble. By 66 minutes Sexton no longer cared for his own well-being as George North came pounding over the gainline. Sexton met him, chest high. Because he had to. He paid for it. He always does. Then on 70 minutes while making a tackle he collided with Donnacha Ryan’s leg and required treatment.
For better or worse in the long term, Ireland avoided defeat here because of Johnny Sexton.