Cathal Noonan/INPHO Johnny Sexton was 100% off the tee.
# Halfbacks
World-class Murray and Sexton underline their importance to Ireland
Numbers nine and 10 were at their very best as Ireland saw off the Springboks in Dublin.

IN CONOR MURRAY and Johnny Sexton, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has a halfback pairing of the highest quality as he builds towards the 2015 Six Nations and World Cup.

The playmaking duo gave a sharp demonstration of their world-class abilities at the Aviva Stadium last night, guiding Ireland to their 29-15 victory with composure, aggression and intelligence.

In contrast to the stuttering Springboks scrum-half Francois Hougaard and inexperienced but exciting 20-year-old out-half Handré Pollard, the Irish partnership shone.

Schmidt sent Ireland out in Dublin with a brief that included much kicking from hand, an area in which Murray and Sexton delivered notably. The Munster scrum-half’s kicking game has made vast strides of progress in the last two years, with his boxing allowing the chasing players to get under the ball and compete ferociously.

Sexton, meanwhile, was expertly spiralling the ball out of hand both on the run and in his line-kicking for touch. That is the true sign of confidence in the 29-year-old, as he backs his technique to eat up those crucial extra metres.

One late, low spiral in behind Bryan Habana was the most prominent example; a kick that is almost impossible to defend again.

There is no intention of getting carried away in lauding the quality of Ireland’s halfbacks against what was a disappointing South Africa side, but Schmidt will have increased belief in his playmakers’ ability to perfectly execute the plan.

Conor Murray tackled by Tendai Mtawarira and Tebo Mohoje Dan Sheridan / INPHO Murray made a clever sniping half-break in the first 40 minutes. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton has always been a keen defender, shooting in high on ball carriers and repeatedly looking to initiate the choke tackle. That can give up metres on occasions, but few other out-halves in the world make as much of a defensive impact as the Racing Métro man.

Similarly, Murray provides an assurance in defence that not many of his peers can offer, with his 6ft 2ins frame and appetite for contact sweeping behind the front line in intimidating fashion.

The 25-year-old oozes composure on the pitch, possessing that rare ability to think calmly despite the volume of 51,000 supporters and a team of powerful Boks bearing down on him.

A superb pre-rehearsed assist with his right boot for Tommy Bowe was a prime example.

Murray and Sexton may not be at this standard every single time they play for Ireland; such an expectation would be difficult to justify. In those instances, Schmidt will look for others to step up and guide the team.

There is also the issue of whether or not the next layer of halfbacks is of a quality that bears any resemblance to Murray and Sexton.

Jonathan Sexton and Jan Serfontein Cathal Noonan / INPHO Sexton brings a physical capability that many 10s don't have. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Eoin Reddan is not quite the same type of scrum-half as Murray, but Schmidt is a firm fan of the Leinster man’s ability to dictate the tempo. Kieran Marmion of Connacht provides another option, one that brings with it a major sniping threat.

Paul O’Connell spoke post-match about how impressive Ian Madigan’s confidence had been when he entered the fray late on last night, but the Leinster playmaker has not had long spells of game time in the out-half position.

Ian Keatley and Paddy Jackson have excelled for their provinces, but the continuing impression is that Sexton’s fitness is going to be the key for Schmidt’s Ireland in the next year.

The quality of the out-half’s place-kicking in Dublin meant another large tick beside his name in the assessment of this encounter, as he slotted six from six off the tee with no fuss.

Whatever about already-missing stars like Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy, ensuring that Sexton and Murray stay fit and healthy is a priority for Ireland’s coaching and medical staff over the next 12 months.

With that pairing wearing numbers nine and 10, Schmidt can rest assured that his intelligent game plans will continue to be carried out effectively.

– First published 10.51

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