Johnny Sexton’s ice and fire may be key in Six Nations game of thrones

I predicted last week that the opening six hours of rugby action that would launch this season’s Six Nations championship would prove very revealing and that’s exactly what transpired, writes Donal Lenihan.

Johnny Sexton’s ice and fire may be key in Six Nations game of thrones

Opinions in the build-up revolved around what happened in the previous autumn international window when, as Scotland in particular found out, the rugby on offer and the approach of the opposition is somewhat different to what you will encounter in tournament rugby.

So Wales, buoyed by a strong Scarlets influence, proved far better than expected given the proven pedigree of British and Irish Lions stalwarts they were missing.

France too performed better than anticipated in many areas, specifically in defence and at the breakdown, given their lack of experience and understanding as a unit. They have the capacity to get better.

Scotland, and in particular their new coach Gregor Townsend, found out the hard way that specific foundations have to be in place before attempting to spread the ball wide with the level of nonchalance they displayed right from the off.

Finding yourself 14 points in arrears after only 12 minutes of action, playing away from home in the opening game of the championship, is the last place you need to be.

As a minimum, you have to engage the opposition and not allow them fan across the field, ready to smash you back in the tackle. The Scots, of whom so much was expected, never recovered from that calamitous start.

As reprieves go, they don’t come more special, memorable, or hard fought than what the Irish players experienced at the Stade de France. Since 1952, only four Irish teams have experienced what it feels like to beat France in Paris and that is why the manner of this victory is likely to prove even more beneficial as this tournament progresses.

All the pre-match evidence pointed to a win for Joe Schmidt’s men but not in the manner that transpired when the will to fashion what, with three minutes to go, looked an unlikely result. So many mini-segments had to go right to put Johnny Sexton in a position to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

If ever a team effort was required to win a game, then this was it, with all 15 players on board at that stage contributing in some way, be it a cleanout at the ruck, a carry, a few precious metres made, a dummy line to distract a French defender, or a pass.

That mesmerising 41 phases of play offered a measure of the increasing maturity in the squad. World champions New Zealand did it in Dublin in 2013 when they needed something special to beat an Irish side that had sprinted into a 19-0 lead in as many minutes.

On that occasion New Zealand needed a converted try from their last play to prevail, and not only did Ryan Crotty oblige with the five-pointer but out-half Aaron Cruden slotted the necessary touchline conversion to turn a draw into a win.

Whether or not Ireland had the capacity to produce the try that would have been required had Anthony Belleau converted his penalty attempt with just three minutes to go remains a question and a challenge for another day.

Of more relevance is the fact that, in the face of adversity last weekend, Ireland demonstrated they had the composure under pressure coupled with the skillset to inflict the same devastating blow to others that we experienced against New Zealand that day.

Of even more relevance is the fact Ireland were able to do it on a day when they were clearly short of their best.

Ireland’s fluency in attack was greatly stifled by an outstanding showing from the French, and their back row in particular, at the breakdown aided, it has to be said, by some poor policing from referee Nigel Owens.

Unusually for France, they committed big numbers to the contact area, which had a detrimental effect on the speed and quality of ball available to Conor Murray. It also bought their defence precious time to realign and pressure Ireland in midfield.

It may well have proved significant that the only member of the Guy Noves’ coaching ticket that has remained in place under Jacques Brunel is their defence coach Jean-Marc Bederede. The intensity and sustained work rate that France produced in this key area, right up to the point of Sexton’s moment of magic, was not in evidence in any of their recent displays.

For such an inexperienced group to produce such a cohesive effort for as long as they did augurs well for their future, on the assumption that this was not just another one-off performance.

That will become clearer when they rock up in Murrayfield next Saturday.

As for Scotland, they will hardly be as bad again but their front five has a very lightweight look to it. The French were impressive at the set-piece in Paris and as Townsend found out in Cardiff, even the best back division in the game needs quality ball to prosper. That game in Edinburgh will define the entire championship for both sides. Another loss and it’s curtains.

The only real negative to emerge from the opening weekend of action surrounded the misuse of the head injury assessment (HIA) procedure.

This crucial element was introduced to remove a player from the field to check for concussion.

The viability of the testing procedure is still open to question, but it has proved a very positive step in making sure the welfare of the player is looked after first and foremost. What happened in Paris when both Matthieu Jalibert and Antoine Dupont were removed from the action under the guise of a HIA, when it was clear to all that both players had suffered a knee injury, has put the entire process under scrutiny.

Under the laws of the game a player who has been tactically substituted, as French scrum-half Maxime Machenaud had been on 67 minutes, can only return to action in four specific instances.

He can replace a blood injury, a player injured by an act of foul play, a front row injury if he is a front row player, or for a HIA. If Dupont was going off as a result of an injured knee, Machenaud could not return to the field of play.

In this instance, the independent medical officer, a member of the French federation, insisted it was for a HIA and referee Nigel Owens was in no position to disagree, having sought clarification from the fourth official, despite his suspicions.

That is also why Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s captain with Rory Best having been replaced, was so irate as it offered France an advantage they were not entitled to at that stage. The fallout from this could have been even worse if Machenaud, who had already contributed two penalty kicks before departing, had slotted over the penalty kick that Belleau missed to extend France’s lead to four points.

Had that happened Sexton’s inspired moment of beauty would never have happened as Ireland would have had to chase a try. Given that the French have previous history in abusing the HIA protocol, surely it is time for the appointment of a truly “independent” doctor, one from outside the two competing countries?

Next weekend’s action should prove equally revealing with England’s game against Wales potentially the clash of the round, with the pre-match utterances of Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland likely to prove every bit as entertaining.

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