Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
# New 10
Sexton blow is big but Schmidt expects Ireland's 'alpha males' to step up
The Ireland head coach is excited to work with a handful of fresh faces.

IF YOU HAD been asked last week to pick one player who Ireland absolutely couldn’t do without in South Africa, it’s likely that Johnny Sexton would have been the name out of your mouth.

The 30-year-old showed his enduring class during the Six Nations this season, having come into the tournament with external doubts surrounding his form and health.

Joe Schmidt Dan Sheridan / INPHO Schmidt now needs Paddy Jackson to step up at out-half. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

His ambition of leading Ireland to a first-ever win against the Springboks on South African soil, and maybe even a series success, was ended when Connacht’s Tom McCartney flung him into the turf at Murrayfield in the 29th minute of the Guinness Pro12 final last weekend.

John Muldoon charged into his damaged right shoulder in the next minute of play, before Bundee Aki smashed Sexton to deck in the 31st minute, just after the Leinster man had had his shoulder examined by the province’s medical team.

That he finished the final demonstrated Sexton’s fierce competitiveness, but now Ireland are without that mental attribute and the out-half’s playmaking and kicking quality.

While Schmidt yesterday underlined that he has not finalised his team for the first Test against the Boks on 11 June, stating that Ian Madigan and Stuart Olding are also options, Paddy Jackson will now be the man to wear 10 for Ireland.

“The big advantage for Paddy is his form and regular game time at the end of the season as opposed to Ian, who hasn’t had that opportunity but he’s trained incredibly well in these two trainings that we’ve done,” said Schmidt.

“Those are the decisions that we’ll make at the latest by Thursday. We’ll try to give the 10 particularly an indication by Tuesday so that they get enough time in the saddle to really lead guys around.

“If it is Jacko it’s a real opportunity for him fill those big boots, that big jersey, but also be himself.

“I’m not going to ask Paddy Jackson to be anyone other than the player he’s comfortable being because that’s a good player, that’s a player that can be effective at Test level and he’s excited about that opportunity if it comes about.”

Paddy Jackson converts his side's second try Craig Thomas / INPHO Jackson had an excellent season for Ulster. Craig Thomas / INPHO / INPHO

The loss of Sexton’s demanding personality may tell for Ireland on a gruelling tour at the end of a long season, but Schmidt argued that other influential figures tend to came to the fore in circumstances like this.

“It’s a needs-must,” said Schmidt. “One of the things you find when you do lose players who are very dominant in the group is that other alpha males emerge and they help drive the group.

“I’ve no doubt that Paddy and Ian can both play that role because out-half is a pivotal position. It’s a position where you’ve got to have to some degree of control of the team during training, during the match so that the players know where they’re going. I’ve no doubt that both of those players can do it well.”

Interestingly, Schmidt said he “had a really good conversation” with Munster out-half Johnny Holland before finalising the addition of Madigan to his squad, but the feeling was that the Cork man was fatigued after his first real season as a pro.

Instead, the uncapped faces in Ireland squad are Quinn Roux and Sean Reidy – both part of the initial 32-man selection – and now Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy, who replace the injured Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald. The final change to Schmidt’s travelling party was Craig Gilroy coming in for the injured Dave Kearney

“From the coaches’ perspective, we’re incredibly excited about the opportunity this gives us,” said Schmidt in accentuating the positives after losing experienced players.

“If there are guys missing, I’m going to know more about Tiernan O’Halloran, more about Matt Healy in a week-to-week environment. I’ve been down to Connacht, I’ve seen them train. I’ve certainly seen them play a lot of times.

“But you get to know a player more and you see him slot in and you say, ‘there’s the level, here it is now, how will he go? Gee, you’re coping really well.’ That’s another stride you can take, so this is a really good opportunity for us.”

Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy James Crombie / INPHO O'Halloran and Healy helped Connacht to the Pro12. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Schmidt indicated yesterday that Robbie Henshaw will be among the contenders for the fullback slot now that Rob Kearney is missing.

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The Kiwi head coach remains convinced that Jared Payne’s superb defence in the 13 channel is crucial for Ireland, meaning that Henshaw may well be the one to drop to the backfield.

Such a move would leave the 12 shirt vacant, with Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall providing two options that excite Schmidt.

“I think for us Staurt Olding is a 12 who can cover 10,” says Schmidt. “We couldn’t really afford to go with just two tens, with no one who could slot into that position. Luke Marshall has had, we feel, a really good season.

“He’s been very good on his feet, he’s been very combative, he has defended really strongly and he’s been very consistent. He also has the flexibility of running at 12 or 13, which was important to us because we weren’t really sure where different players might have to slot.

“It’s a bit different to say, making selections for Six Nations, where you’re home based and you can pull players in and out.

“Once you’re that far away [in South Africa], while if there’s an injury and a guy is out for two weeks you might get someone in, you might also have enough to survive with.

“We wanted to be a little bit self-sufficient in as many positions as possible. But between Robbie, Luke, Stu and at a pinch Ian Madigan has played a fair bit there, it’ll be a big place when the big South African forwards start coming around the corner.

“There’s some pretty unpleasant sights for those inside backs at that stage.”

Sexton won’t be on the inside of whoever is tasked with chopping down those South African ball carriers, but Schmidt is hoping to see a host of new dominant figures emerge.

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