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Sexton's importance as a 'big, big leader' for Ireland underlined again

The 34-year-old impressed before being replaced at half-time in the 35-0 win over Russia.

Updated Oct 4th 2019, 9:41 AM

JOHNNY SEXTON IS the reigning World Rugby player of the year, so stressing his importance to Ireland is a very obvious point to make.

The 34-year-old has been central to Ireland’s biggest successes under Joe Schmidt, from early Six Nations trophies in 2014 and 2015, a first-ever win against the All Blacks in 2016, all the way through to last year’s Grand Slam and second victory over the Kiwis.

But recent times have stressed the issue once again, underlining just how crucial Sexton is if Ireland are to achieve anything of note at this World Cup.

jonathan-sexton-after-the-game Sexton played just 40 minutes for Ireland yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With their key conductor absent against Japan, Ireland suffered a shock defeat, while his departure at half-time of yesterday’s 35-0 win over Russia saw a decline that was only arrested in the final quarter as Joe Schmidt’s team secured the bonus point they needed.

With Rory Best given the evening off, it had been notable that Schmidt handed Sexton the Ireland captaincy for the first time ever, even with Peter O’Mahony also in the starting XV.

Keen for a strong performance to bounce back from the Japan defeat, it felt pointed that Schmidt selected Sexton to captain the team, seemingly eager for the out-half’s demanding personality to bring out the best in Ireland.

Ireland said post-match that it was always the plan for Sexton to play only 40 minutes of this game and that it had nothing to do with the quad issue that had troubled Sexton in the lead-up to the Japan game.

Schmidt promised that Sexton will play up to 60 minutes of Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa in Fukuoka on 12 October, but it remains to be seen if he will be backed-up by Jack Carty or Joey Carbery, the latter of whom has worryingly aggravated his ankle injury and was withdrawn from the bench for yesterday’s game against Russia.

Though Sexton only played 40 minutes in Kobe, he showed his class with a clever grubber-kick assist for O’Mahony’s try and was central to a more convincing showing than what Ireland delivered in the second half.

“You can see him influencing what happens next,” said Russia head coach Lyn Jones post-match.

“He makes good decisions with no time. I can’t believe he’s 34, it feels like yesterday he was actually starting.”

jonathan-sexton-kicks-through-to-set-up-peter-omahony-to-score-their-second-try Sexton laid on a try for Peter O'Mahony in Kobe. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland themselves also appreciated what Sexton brought on his return to the fold.

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“He was very, very good,” said tighthead prop John Ryan. “He’s a good leader and he had us working around the corners.

“He put us through our paces and I think we’re very happy with the 40 he gave us. I think that was his job for the day, just to play the first half.”

Hooker Niall Scannell did stress how impressed he had been with replacement out-half Jack Carty, but the Connacht man is obviously at a different stage of his career than the veteran Sexton.

Carty showed another couple of classy touches as Ireland secured their bonus-point, although he will have been frustrated that the third quarter of the game slipped away from Schmidt’s side.

In truth, Sexton’s importance to Ireland has rarely seemed greater and their hopes of surprising people at this World Cup to bounce back and win a quarter-final do appear to rest quite heavily on the Leinster man.

Regular captain Rory Best paid tribute to his vice-captain this morning as Ireland began to look towards their final pool game against Samoa.

“I think Johnny is a fantastic captain,” said Best. “I think the problem when you get somebody as good as Johnny, the tendency is sometimes to focus on some of the negatives.

“If you look at the way he’s led Leinster, there’s not been a lot said about how successful they were last year.

jonathan-sexton-celebrates-after-the-game Sexton appeared to be in good spirits after Ireland's win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“A lot was said about that game in Thomond Park and focused on that. Whenever you see the way Leinster play and see how they want to play for him, the sign of a really good captain is that you get a sense people want to play under you. You got that from Leinster last season and you got that from the boys last night

“Johnny is definitely maturing into somebody that understands the difference being a quality player and a quality captain.

“I thought he did really well, had a really strong 40 minutes, not just as a player but as a captain too.

“There’s no hiding away from the fact that he’s a big, big leader in this group.”

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Murray Kinsella

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