Johnny Sexton is Ireland's oldest player. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Talking Points

Scotland overrated, Gibson-Park underrated and Ireland's age concern

We look at all the big issues ahead of today’s game.

Old stagers need to deliver

Johnny Sexton is 35, Cian Healy 33, Keith Earls 33. There are younger alternatives for each man – especially now that Joey Carbery is back in the swing of things. Yes, a certain level of respect has to be delivered for what these players have achieved in the past – Sexton being a world player of the year; Healy an international centurion, Earls the second highest tryscorer in Irish history – but you cannot continue to be picked on reputation alone.

It’s what you do in the present that counts and so far in this championship, these old-timers have been okay, doing nothing particularly special, although certainly nothing terrible. Interestingly Gregor Townsend, the Scotland coach, spoke to the BBC rugby podcast earlier this week about the optimum age for an international. “For me, when I was playing, it was about 30,” he said, pointing out how by then he was old enough to know things but still young enough to do them.

Can Sexton continue to deliver at 35? “The modern-day fly half,” Townsend said in answer to a question about Finn Russell, “has to be more than one thing. He has to lead the attack, lead the gameplan and have an all-round skill set, one where he can pass the ball, can kick – but he cannot just kick for territory. That part of the game has changed the most in the last five years. It is the position that demands a lot of skill and a temperament not to worry if things are going against you.”

keith-earls-scores-a-try Keith Earls, at 33, scored last against Italy. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton’s temperament has never been in doubt. But Ireland could do with his best performance of the season today. The same rule applies to his fellow veterans.

Ireland need to remember it is a game of two halves

Go beyond your national borders and people tend to look at you from a different perspective. The introspective conversations about Andy Farrell’s game-plan and philosophy don’t really travel across the Irish Sea. Instead, the overriding consensus in the UK is that Ireland are unlucky not to be three from three in this championship. “They played really well when a man down against Wales,” Townsend said. “Straight after the red card (to Peter O’Mahony) they dominated possession, got ahead on the scoreboard and then brought the energy back up again.

“They came very close to beating France and Wales – with a man down. They are a team in form.”

Really? Against Italy they certainly showed glimpses of their potential for a half – against France, you could say the same thing. In fact, in just about all of the matches under Farrell, they have followed a familiar pattern, playing spectacularly well for periods of matches but drifting out of them on an all too regular basis.

peter-omahony-leaves-the-field-after-being-red-carded Peter O'Mahony is sent off against Wales. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Under Farrell’s predecessor, Joe Schmidt, consistency became a byword, their concentration levels at their fullest for the big wins over England, Wales, Australia and New Zealand in 2018. The last year has been more up and down – not just from game to game, but within games. That, more than anything, needs to change.

Gibson-Park versus Murray

It doesn’t seem that long ago when an injury to either Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton was regarded as a national emergency. Well, not anymore after Jamison Gibson-Park, the Leinster scrum half with eight caps on his CV, got picked instead of 88-times capped Murray.

It isn’t a popular thing to say but Gibson-Park is better than people give him credit for, and yes, he is also in better form now than Murray, who has not kicked a ball in anger in five weeks. “Jamison brings tempo and off-the-cuff-type feel to the game,” Farrell said. “He plays what’s in front of him and he is dynamic. He has good footwork and he can ask questions of any defence. And his game control is pretty good on the back of that so it is a nice package to have.”

Scotland are everyone’s new best friend

When will Scotland deliver? One-off wins, they’ve been doing that for years. But following up on it, well that is a different story. While it was terribly polite of Paul O’Connell to call them “the best Scotland team I have gone up against” – some reminders are needed.

They are world class at flattering to deceive – a recurring theme stretching across the last five years. They’d beat France one week, cough up 35 points to Ireland the next.

a-view-of-the-big-screen-in-the-closing-stages-of-the-match The scoreboard during the 2016 meeting. Colm O'Neill / INPHO Colm O'Neill / INPHO / INPHO

In 2017, they’d get one over Ireland to open the championship, then lose to France, beat Wales, then cough up 61 points to England. That summer they beat Australia away, then lost the following week to Fiji.

Another big win over the Wallabies that autumn, when they ran up 53 points on Michael Cheika’s side, was followed by a 34-7 loss to Wales. France and England then got conquered; Ireland beat them easily.

So it goes, this pattern of boom and bust. They came from nowhere to draw 38-38 with England in 2019, then exited the World Cup without firing a shot. Last year they beat France, won away in Wales, but did so when their chance of winning the championship had already disappeared.

This year they won in Twickenham for the first time since 1983 and then lost at home to Wales. So, can they be trusted? Aside from New Zealand, they have beaten just about everyone at some point in the last ten years but in the crunch games, they’ve failed.

Being dubbed everyone’s second favourite team tends to be as much of an insult as a compliment – often an attribute given to a side who are easy on the eye, but also, when it comes down to it, easy to beat.

It’s up to them to change that perception.

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