Jonathan Sexton carries can for struggles up front

It’s been all but lost amid the tidal wave of more significant events since, but it’s worth remembering that Jonathan Sexton’s first appearance on a rugby field after he picked up the gong for world player of the year in Monte Carlo at the back end of November ended with him limping to the sidelines with a grimace.

Leinster were fortunate to come through that day against Bath, their problems at the breakdown against the likes of Francois Louw and Sam Underhill making for a difficult evening and tight margin of victory at the Recreation Ground. For Sexton, the calf injury suffered was merely the start of a frustrating few months.

Not that is has been all bad.

The 33-year-old was part of a Leinster side that swept Bath aside in Dublin a week later. And he was more than decent in his shortened spell on the pitch against Scotland as well as for the vast majority of Ireland’s canter against France in the Six Nations. Problem is that he has been poor — and volatile with it — against the likes of Munster, Italy, and Wales.

It’s impossible to say how much injuries have contributed to his stutters. Fitness updates tend to lie somewhere between vague and downright misleading these days, but we have heard mentions of “the back of his knee” and a quad issue since late December. Neither were ever described as serious and yet he has missed a lot of rugby for Leinster.

The expectation is that he will be fit to take his place against Toulouse in Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road. If he does it will be a first appearance in blue since that tempestuous evening at Thomond Park at Christmas when he lost the rag with Fineen Wycherley and Leinster lost the game.

Sexton’s difficulties during the Six Nations came to symbolise Ireland’s unexpectedly difficult campaign, but the sense that Leinster’s fortunes rise or fall on the basis of this one man don’t hold water with everyone. “I don’t think so,” says scrum-half Luke McGrath. “It’s not just Johnny. Like, we’ve so much experience in the squad, I think we can handle that. But I’ve no doubt if Johnny plays he’s going to put in a big performance.”

It’s hard to escape the notion that Sexton’s excellence as a player, allied to his bristling and competitive nature on the field, have elevated him in the minds of the average onlooker into a barometer for all things good and bad when it comes to his club and country. That’s just way too simplistic. Rugby has changed in modern times and yet it still beats to many of the same old tribal beats.

Peter Fitzsimons, a lock with Brive and Australia in the late ’80s and a celebrated sportswriter in the years since, is said to have summed this up better than most. “Rugby backs can be identified because they generally have clean jerseys and identifiable partings in their hair. Come the revolution the backs will be the first to be lined up against the wall and shot for living parasitically off the work of others.”

That truth holds eternal, no matter how many law changes World Rugby might introduce. And it is a fact worth considering as we wring our hands over the form of not just Sexton but that of Conor Murray who had to contend with a long injury lay-off and an Irish forward pack that lacked the dominance it enjoyed in 2018 as he went about reclaiming his mojo.

Gordon D’Arcy made this argument quite forcefully earlier this week. There was an immediate push back from the former centre when it was put to him that Sexton’s struggles were a key contributing factor in Ireland’s difficulties. The way he explained it was much more in line with Fitzsimons’ thinking, even if it lacked some of the colourful language.

How, D’Arcy asked, could he be expected to fire when the Ireland pack was providing him with blanks?

“For him to perform it needs the tight five to perform and Leinster’s tight five has been going pretty well. As long as they give him a platform to perform there is never going to be an issue with Johnny Sexton’s confidence. You have to look at the recent history as well. How many times has Johnny come out and just dropped back in?

“The only time he comes under scrutiny is when he doesn’t get that platform to perform. I don’t care if you are Beauden Barrett or Dan Carter or whoever — if your pack isn’t performing it is almost impossible for a ten to create momentum out of thin air and that was a real problem for Ireland during the Six Nations. People, I think unfairly, judged the individuals and pieces within the team rather than saying it just didn’t happen. They were well marshalled for the whole tournament.”

No doubt Sexton’s performance will be viewed through the most simplistic of lenses this Sunday but no man is an island in rugby, not even a star out-half. If Leinster’s pack perform and the No.10 still struggles, well, that’s the time to start fretting.

Email: brendan.obrien @examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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