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Analysis: Ireland's attack was too reliant on Johnny Sexton in Paris

The out-half has a huge burden on his shoulders to create chances for Ireland.

Updated at 21.30

IF IRELAND COULD clone Johnny Sexton, he would quite possibly start at 10 and 12 for Joe Schmidt’s side.

An excellent defender and superb tactical kicker, Sexton would make a fine inside centre, but it’s his playmaking ability that would perhaps be most useful of all in the 12 shirt.

Ireland’s  Johnny Sexton Sexton is an excellent playmaker. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Virtually all of the most incisive attacking moments in Ireland’s attack against France on Saturday – aside from some superb ball carrying in the tight – involved Sexton.

Let’s take those incredible closing minutes as an example.

The majority of the key phases in which Ireland made notable ground involved Sexton.

In those championship minutes, his ability to draw defenders before screen passes was important to making ground twice, while his kick pass to Keith Earls was absolutely pivotal to bringing Ireland into range for his drop goal.

Those five minutes sum up the issue here. Sexton is a brilliant playmaker, but the burden on him is too great. Without his contributions, would Ireland have even left their own half?

The topic of a second playmaker is something that has long been discussed in relation to Ireland, and it was fascinating to see the effect Jared Payne had from fullback against England in last year’s Six Nations – taking pressure off Sexton as a playmaker.

Ireland’s backline against France simply didn’t have another player like Payne.

It meant that as Ireland ground through the phases – as they did so often in this game – there was little or no playmaking quality when Sexton was not directly involved.

The incident below comes soon before half time and is telling.

Sexton

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After passing to a forward carrying pod in midfield on the fourth phase of an Irish attack from kick return, Sexton comes around the corner and it’s clear that moving the ball to that left side of the ruck would not be beneficial.

As we can see below, Sexton and Jacob Stockdale are mismatched against the French defence.

Numbers

There are five French attackers and just two Irish attackers here, so Sexton does not call for the ball from Murray – the only likely outcome being a loss of ground.

But as Murray turns to his right, it’s immediately apparent that Ireland are not organised or ready to run a play on that side of the pitch.

Murray fires the ball to Josh van der Flier to make the carry that sees him suffer a season-ending injury and already we can see Sexton’s dissatisfaction.

Flail

As van der Flier carries, we can see Sexton with his arms flailed out questioningly in the bottom corner of the image above, seemingly wondering why Ireland aren’t prepared on that side of the pitch.

Van der Flier goes to ground and when Nigel Owens halts play due to the injury, we can see Sexton berating his team-mates.

He slaps his thighs and then brings his arms up as he shouts across, seemingly in the direction of Robbie Henshaw.

Sexton

We don’t know what Sexton is saying, of course, but it does seem obvious that his unhappiness is based around Ireland’s disorganisation in this instance.

Sexton is always ordering, cajoling and directing team-mates, before making good decisions and executing his skills accurately more often than not.

If this is a hint of frustration at other backs not stepping up to share some of that responsibility for organising Ireland and acting when he is not in a position to do so, that’s understandable.

To be fair, we saw other instances in this game where Henshaw did organise Ireland’s forwards and step in at first receiver, but it’s clear that this is still a role he is adapting to.

Henshaw

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We get an example of that above, after Sexton has been involved in the previous ruck and is therefore out of the game.

Henshaw is simply passing to a pod of ball-carrying forwards but his pass is somewhere in between being directed to Peter O’Mahony or van der Flier. Neither Irish forward feels the pass is for them, and it goes to ground.

Now, one of them should have caught the ball obviously, but Henshaw is hesitant in this role. He is sublime at so many other things on the pitch, but playmaking is not something that is a strength for him, at least in this kind of position.

Though we mentioned Sexton as potentially being a good 12, the actual number on the second playmakers’ back is not the real issue. Whether they’re at 13, 12, or 15, Sexton could use some support in this element of the game.

Bundee Aki did a superb job in his specific role as a ball-carrying gainline merchant against France, Henshaw had some good carries and decoy runs, while Rob Kearney made several important defensive contributions from the 15 shirt and ran excellent lines on set-piece plays.

But none of those players could take any real pressure off Sexton as a playmaker.

Even aside from the passing and organising elements, there was no strong second attacking kicking option for Ireland against the French. In wet conditions, a grubber kick option further out the backline could have been hugely effective, but none of the Irish outside backs have that as a consistent part of their armoury.

With the use of Payne at 15 having been so promising for Ireland in their victory against England last year, it would be fascinating to see Schmidt attempt something similar again during this Six Nations.

Payne hasn’t played for Ireland since that England game and remains out of action, so Schmidt obviously cannot look to the experiment again.

Joey Carbery is the obvious possible second playmaker in the current Ireland squad, and it would be interesting to learn if Schmidt has considered playing Sexton and Carbery together as a 10-15 combination.

Perhaps Schmidt has no real interest in getting a second playmaker onto the pitch at all, but it would certainly be beneficial if Ireland are to avoid situations like last weekend’s – where repeated spells of possession create no tries or even try-scoring chances.

There are huge amounts of positives in Ireland’s attack – from their excellence with set-piece strikes to their usual ball-carrying quality in the tight – but playmaking is not a major strength for them, Sexton aside.

While Schmidt might point out that playmakers are not the only tool required to win in Test rugby, if he can add another to his team, Ireland could be a far more dangerous proposition in attack.

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Murray Kinsella

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