Sexton should be fit for Wales match in which kicking will be key
Outhalf’s ‘direction and leadership on the pitch is massive’, says Richie Murphy
Ireland have been given a timely boost as they seek a record 11th successive win when they face Wales in the Millennium Stadium this Saturday with the news that chief strategist and goal-kicker, Johnny Sexton has virtually declared himself fit for the game.
It was anticipated that the Ireland outhalf might be in a race against time to recover from the hamstring injury he suffered when converting Robbie Henshaw’s try in the win over England. That he came through training on Tuesday has removed those doubts.
According to Ireland’s kicking coach Richie Murphy, Sexton followed up modified training on Monday with a full session on Tuesday prior to a kicking session on Wednesday. “We are really happy where he is at,” said Murphy, “and we’re expecting him to be fit at the weekend.”
Arguably the player of the month in the November window, across the board, and the player of the tournament so far, Sexton’s wellbeing is imperative to Ireland’s hopes of setting up a Grand Slam on the final weekend in Murrayfield.
“His direction and his leadership on the pitch is massive, those decisions that he makes on the run,” admitted Murphy. “In that way he is a massive part of the squad but Jamie [Heaslip] is a massive part of the squad. There are people there who have been massive parts of the squad and when they have been out other guys stepped in and done a really good job and in fairness to Keats [Ian Keatley] over in Italy, he had a fine game. Look, we’re really happy to have him [Sexton]. We’re really happy that he will be fit to play at the weekend but the back-up means the squad doesn’t rely on the back of just Johnny.”
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“It’s great,” admitted Murphy of Ireland’s relatively rude health. “The atmosphere in the squad is good. Everyone is very focused on the task in hand and I suppose everyone sees it as something they want to be involved in. No one wants to miss out through injury. They’re trying to make sure they are ticking all the boxes and making sure that their recovery strategies are right up there.”
Unlike Ireland-England games in recent times, or indeed meetings with the French, Ireland-Wales games have tended to be more fluent, high scoring affairs, and this Saturday’s game could buck the trend of Ireland’s campaign thus far.
“I think both teams like to play with the ball,” said Murphy. “They like to move the ball around and keep it in hand as much as possible. It’s very hard to see the future but we’ve obviously had a really good look at Wales. We understand their gameplan and we’ve devised something that is going to give us the best chance of winning the game.”
In Ireland’s 24-8 win last year, Warren Gatland said that Ireland “kicked the leather off the ball”, and with two superb kickers at halfback and five players who have played fullback outside them (plus another two on the bench), there is no doubt the kick-chase and ensuing aerial duel will be significant again.
“I suppose we’ve been lucky that we’ve got good pay out of our kicking game because our back three players and our midfield players are so good in the air,” said Murphy. “It’s definitely a two-sided thing. We’ve got guys who are good in the air and we’ve got guys who are reasonably good kickers. Our kicking game over the last while hasn’t been as great as everyone has wrote it up to be but obviously England didn’t really deal with it that well.”
“If you look at Wales, and look at their back three players, they’re really good in the air.
“[George] North is much improved in the air, Liam Williams is world-class in the air, Leigh Halfpenny is very good in the air and they’ve got Roberts in the centre as well, so they get a lot out of their kicking game as well. They kick to regather so when people kick to them they are very strong under the contestable ball as well.”
As they come up against the peerless Halfpenny, another feather in Murphy’s cap is Ireland’s phenomenal return of 17 from 18 in this year’s Six Nations (a ratio of 94.4 per cent) from three different kickers, and 38 out of 42 this season (90.5 per cent).
“Yeah, it’s really good, guys have been fantastic and having three guys there,” said Murphy.
“Ian Keatley was 100 per cent against Italy, Ian Madigan has been really good albeit missing two against Georgia, but when you’ve 10 kicks at goal, your concentration will waver at some stage and they were towards the end of the game. Goal-kicking has been a real positive for us and it’s something we need to keep working on and keep moving forward.”