Sexton the story that matters as Carty fades in the face of Brave Blossoms
Tale of three outhalves quickly becoming Schmidt’s downward spiralling swansong
Japan’s Pieter Labuschagne and Luke Thompson tackle Jack Carty. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty)
The late bloomer lined up for the Brave Blossoms anthem, for the biggest moment in his life, with socks rolled down to shins.
Same as always. “I’m not going to try to be Johnny or Joey,” promised this natural born footballer. The 27-year-old was going to be himself but Jack Carty’s confidence, while infectious, was never going to be enough.
Sweltering Shizuoka was no place for inexperience. Not with all those fireworks at the ready. Not with Japan lying in wait, strategising an Irish downfall for three long years.
This was never supposed to be the moment that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland turned to Carty. No, Schmidt’s grand idea has always centred around the world player of the year and his heir apparent.
The story is no longer how so many dreamt it. For all that inspirational copy Carty’s career peak delivered last week, a deep meditative anxiety about the bigger picture overshadows the Athlone man’s curious rise.
The muddied Sexton story is what really matters, and how it dovetails with Carbery’s story, because this duo, for better or worse, will be the Ireland story at the 2019 Rugby World Cup; a tale that is fast becoming Schmidt’s downward spiralling swansong.
Not since November 17th 2018 has there been compelling evidence that Ireland can remain at this tournament until November 2nd.
The story sports writers hoped to tell, the one people wanted to read over breakfast, is no longer possible. It’s not over. In fact, only now does reality unfold as Ireland seek to avoid the fate of their predecessors.
Sexton will face Russia on Thursday.
Initially on Saturday at The Ecopa - a stadium now etched into the Irish sport tome of misery - Carty looked the part as each ball delicately sprayed off his boot.
Early morning arguments over how much pressure Carbery is heaping on Sexton had stalled. Talk about Carbery playing fullback or centre, like how All Blacks prime their coming stars, were silenced.
“I wouldn’t consider myself too match fit yet but I would like to have started,” Carbery revealed afterwards.
Damn ankle ligaments and thigh strains, along with Schmidt’s clever manipulation of media messaging, blocks the debate everyone craves.
“I’ve been coaching Johnny for the last 10 years and it is not something I would be too concerned about because he keeps himself in good condition,” said the 54-year-old Kiwi last Thursday when also stating that he considered putting Sexton on the bench to play Japan.
So, was he ready or not? It’s either a risk Ireland failed to take or they underestimated Japan. Jamie Joseph indicated the latter post match.
It was Schmidt who pointed out how Sexton’s durability never fully recovered from two concussive years in Paris, as much as Sexton stresses he has accumulated just shy of 300 first class games.
None of this mattered Saturday morning with all eyes trained on Carty.
This was the former Roscommon minor’s first truly competitive start for his country. The man of many sporting faces was - all of a sudden - propelled onto the global stage.
Pre-match, as the enormity of the occasion was rammed home to those present, the risk felt enormous. Then Carty kicked off into the Japan 22, a method that eventually back-fired, and Ireland tore into the hosts but following a turnover by Amanaki Mafi The Ecopa went ballistic, with waves of noise tumbling down from upon high to inject surging belief in Joseph’s team.
It felt like Ireland were in a hurry to accumulate points before the sticky conditions took hold of them, or the boiling atmosphere inspired Japan. Every player was tuned in as Carty nudged them forward. The Fields rang around the Shizuoka Prefecture as green swathes bellowed out the emigrant song.
Carty had settled, his maverick mind rushing a penalty that almost found Keith Earls, playing with audacity similar to Sexton or Carbery.
It was Jack Carty’s ball, and on 13 minutes he did something many outhalves would never contemplate, when landing a cross-field punt on Garry Ringrose’s chest for the centre to spin and score the opening try. The touchline conversation floated wide as the big screen showed Sexton applauding.
The second try was Carty the former midfielder high fielding over two Japanese backrowers as Rob Kearney pounced on breaking ball.
Freewheelin’ rugby now, he went once again to the punt pass for Earls to put Kearney storming down field.
All of this was a mirage. Slowly, then rapidly, momentum irreversibly slipped away from Ireland. When Rory Best threw over Iain Henderson on30 minutes Japan hooker Shota Horie got a run on Carty. He was bounced. Moments after Yu Tamura’s penalty made it 12-6, Horie put in a solid hit after Carty needlessly stepped into bigger men, and Luke Thompson ripped the ball loose. Ireland scrum. Japan penalty. Everyone in the stadium sensed the change; like large prey deep in the jungle realising the hunter was wounded, The Ecopa turned feral when Tamura reduced arrears to 12-9.
Carty’s long restart bobbled dead to gift Japan a scrum after the half-time gong.
On 55 minutes - with desperation a disease spreading like a wild fire
- Carty was nothing more than a speed bump to Kazuki Himeno’s charge.
Carbery and the bench were unable to deny Japan’s generational performance. The great Schmidt masterplan fractures before our eyes.
Sexton is coming. Maybe he can still save Ireland. Maybe it was a terrible mistake not to risk him. Maybe the ending is as inevitable as it always has been.