Joe Schmidt is backing Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to shake off the rust and to be the ‘competitive animals’ Ireland need to face down Scotland at Murrayfield tomorrow.
Scrum-half Murray and fly-half Sexton, widely regarded as the best half-back pairing in world rugby, were well below par last Saturday as Ireland stuttered against a rampant England side but head coach Schmidt had no hesitation retaining the pair for the Guinness Six Nations clash his side needs to win to keep their title defence alive.
Schmidt marked down the off day for the Murray-Sexton axis as a blip given the Munster scrum-half’s late start to the season due to a neck injury and the World Player of the Year’s month out with a knee problem.
“I think they are class players and class is permanent,” Schmidt said at yesterday’s team announcement.
“Form can be temporary and coming back after not having played in a month, a player might be a bit rusty. A player who has had a longer lay-off and is getting back to their rhythm, he might be a bit rusty.
“So this period for us is super for them to build themselves back to where they need to be, and I think I said post the game that we’ve always tended to finish strongly in the championship and we’re going to have to, going away to Wales at the end of this.
“But whether we’ve been home or away, we’ve won our last game in the championship so I do think that we can build our way through this championship and I think those two guys, as a hub, will build themselves forward.
I’ve chatted to both of them, mainly to offer them the same confidence that so many people have in them, including the players in the team, that they are outstanding contributors to our environment off the pitch, they are class players on the pitch and they are just the sort of competitive animal we need going to a hostile environment, which Murrayfield will be.
Schmidt also defended his decision to keep both players on, in Murray’s case for 77 minutes, and Sexton for the full 80, as the 2018 Grand Slam winners went down 32-20 for their first home defeat in the six championships played under the current head coach.
“We had an injury at half-time. Well, to be honest, Keith was hurt by Maro Itoje’s knee off the ball well before that and he got through with that hip-pointer… we knew that Keith wasn’t 100% so we made that change at half-time.
“So you’re already down to two back replacements then we had a couple of other guys who were carrying knocks and we knew that Murphy’s Law is as soon as you make a change someone gets hurt and then you’re scrambling.
“The other thing is how does a player who hasn’t played for a long time get his game rhythm back, it’s not by being brought off and stuck on the bench anyway so, as I said, they’re class players.
"You know that the more time they get the more likely they are to start to really demonstrate that and run the game for us.”