Joe Schmidt stood by his main man yesterday, backing Johnny Sexton’s decision to take that fateful penalty as an historic first victory over the All Blacks beckoned.
That is nothing you wouldn’t expect from the new Ireland coach, but it is also probable Schmidt will have emerged from his first international window with his worst fears about Sexton’s heavy workload for French club Racing Metro and the effect it will have on the national team’s fortunes fully realised.
Schmidt will have learned plenty from his first three Test matches in charge this month, but regarding Sexton, the cold hard truth is that the upshot of the IRFU’s decision to play hardball in contract negotiations with the star fly-half last spring will mean Schmidt’s creative mainstay could very well miss as many of Ireland’s games as he plays over the course of his two-year deal to play in the Top 14.
After playing 12 games in 13 weeks for his new club, Sexton arrived in the Ireland camp at the end of October “entering dangerous territory, in terms of injury,” as his club assistant coach Ronan O’Gara wrote in his Irish Examiner column on November 1.
By then, as injuries to Racing’s other fly-halves occurred, Sexton was recalled from Carton House to sit on the bench in their Top 14 game at Biarritz. Even though he was saved from further playing time, the round trip to the south of France can hardly have helped and sure enough, O’Gara’s prediction came to pass, Sexton developed a hip flexor problem and he needed the next weekend off, Schmidt’s Test bow as coach against Samoa.
Then the hamstring went before half-time against Australia and it was a miracle he even started against New Zealand on Sunday. That he did and lasted 75 minutes is a testament to the player’s resilience and commitment to the Irish cause and Schmidt did the right thing in defending the & Lion over the missed 74th-minute penalty that played its part in costing his side victory over the All Blacks.
“Johnny struck it really well,” Schmidt told RTÉ yesterday morning. “I’d leave it in his hands to deem whether or not he is fit to take the kick. I have a lot of trust in him. I have known him for a few years and I think he was the right man in the right place. He just didn’t get the right result.”
Sexton had done so much to put his team in the position to win the game in the previous 73 minutes that he should not become the focus of the finger-pointing that inevitably accompanies such bitter disappointments. Yet one wonders how often we will see Ireland’s most exciting player disappear down the tunnel with a grimace of pain or disappointment on his face in advance of a final whistle, of the games he actually manages to start, and what impact that will have on his country’s prospects of reaching the potential that undoubtedly can be reached under Schmidt’s management.
Despite the former Leinster coach’s “devastation” at seeing victory slip from Ireland’s grasp on Sunday afternoon, there are many positives he will take from this Guinness Series, even if the performances against Samoa and Australia were far from up to the required standard.
Schmidt elevated loose-head prop Jack McGrath and wing Dave Kearney to Test status and was rewarded with a man-of-the-match performance from McGrath and a two-try debut from Kearney, both against the Samoans. Both also did well in their subsequent performances with Kearney making the most of his start against New Zealand, both in defence and attack. McGrath was unfortunate to have conceded the penalty that led to the heartbreak of Ryan Crotty’s last-gasp try but both players’ emergence as Test-ready selection contenders this month will have cheered Schmidt in his objective to expand a playing pool to cover every emergency.
Paddy Jackson’s solid performance at fly-half against Samoa in Sexton’s absence will also offer some consolation to Schmidt as he looks for back-up to his on-field general while in the forwards, Devin Toner has finally put his hand up as a viable second row option, assuming Schmidt goes with his captain Paul O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan as his first-choice locks.
With Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls all missing out through injury this autumn there is certainly plenty of depth on the wings while McGrath’s position of loose head also now looks well covered considering Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne was omitted and his provincial rival James Cronin is now on the national radar having excelled in the early part of the season.
The ebb and flow of personnel available to Schmidt means that any returnees to the fold will inevitably be countered by fresh injuries ahead of the Six Nations, which begins on February 2 when Ireland meet Scotland in Dublin, and the coach was right to tinker with his selections over these three Tests, even if the omission of Conor Murray form the Australian Test will have jarred with many of a Munster persuasion.
Next January’s A international against the England Saxons in Gloucester will give the New Zealander a further opportunity to cast his net wide and chief among those looking to make their mark will surely be Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion, overlooked by Schmidt this autumn despite becoming a regular for his province.
The likes of the already-capped Iain Henderson and Tommy O’Donnell could also feature having missed the Guinness Series through injury while Donnacha Ryan and Chris Henry will be looking to return to the full squad ahead of the Six Nations campaign after their injury absences.
Amidst the wreckage of broken dreams from last Sunday there was much to applaud, and there will be lots to fine-tune and more foundations to be laid, not least in the drive for consistency. Yet Ireland appear to be heading in the right direction and that’s a reason for optimism.
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