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Sexton backs 'smart' call to plan for All Blacks showdown without Murray

The out-half says playing alongside Kieran Marmion or Luke McGrath won’t alter the way Ireland play.

AND SO THE to-ing and fro-ing, the will he or won’t he debate can be put to bed. Conor Murray — having not played since June — won’t make a Lazarus-like recovery and run out against the All Blacks on Saturday. Steven Hansen’s prediction was off the mark. His comeback will likely be in the more understated surroundings of Parma later this month. Case closed, end of story.

Joe Schmidt put the speculation to bed at the start of a seismic week for Ireland by confirming the Munster scrum-half will not be making a sooner-than-expected return this weekend, nor against USA the following week.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton speaking to the media at Carton House today. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The loss of Robbie Henshaw to the hamstring issue which forced him out of the victory over Argentina at the last minute is more concerning and a greater blow. That’s the real issue six days out from the All Blacks.

Withdrawn as a ‘precaution’, the Leinster centre has been ruled out of the rest of the autumnal programme and now places even more importance on Garry Ringrose’s fitness, after he sat out the 28-17 win over the Pumas with a hip knock.

Bundee Aki, outstanding on Saturday, and Ringrose are expected to reform their midfield partnership from Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning match at Twickenham, but the absence of Henshaw will be keenly felt.

“Robbie’s been a big part of the team over the last number of years and has bounced back from a number of injuries [shoulder and knee],” Johnny Sexton said at Carton House this afternoon. 

“Remember how he bounced back for Leinster with that incredible performance in the semi-final against Scarlets after been out for so long? I’m sure he will bounce back quickly again but he is a loss for us this week.

“He’s a loss for a lot of teams in the world and he’ll be a loss for us this week. But the guys that are available will do a great job I’m sure.”

The IRFU’s brief injury update which ruled Murray — not originally named in Ireland’s squad — out of the games against the world champions and USA allows the narrative to move on. The focus will now be on who’ll start in the nine jersey.

Kieran Marmion appears to be in pole position to get the nod after his try-scoring performance against Argentina, with Schmidt labelling him as his man of the match, but there is a lot to be said for the continuity of a Sexton-Luke McGrath half-back pairing. 

“I obviously stayed in touch with Conor a lot over the injury to see how he has been getting on and all the time [he's been] improving but I suppose he’s just trying to make sure he can get it right from now and not be an issue going forward,” Sexton continued.

“It’s probably a smart thing. It’s a big ask. If you’re out for a few weeks and you’re asked to play the All Blacks, that’s tough enough. But if you’re out for the period of time he has been out for, it would be a big step up. Hopefully, we’ll see him back soon, I’m not sure how soon but obviously a quality player, we’d hope to have him back…Munster or Ireland whenever he can.”

Sexton was asked what difference it will make to the way Ireland play without Murray pulling the strings. 

“Not too differently at all, to be perfectly honest,” he replied. “Look, he’s a world-class player and three guys behind him are chasing him but I think they did well at the weekend, ‘Marms’ and Luke. They’ll be better for that experience as well. 

Luke McGrath celebrates after scoring a try Sexton will partner Marmion or McGrath in the half-backs this weekend. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I think the more time you spend in the environment in here, the more comfortable you get and the better you get. I’m sure those guys will go a step ahead again this week.”

After conducting their video review session at the Kildare base this morning, Schmidt’s Ireland will return to the training paddock this afternoon as they gear up for the much-anticipated Test against Steve Hansen’s side [KO 7pm, RTÉ2, Channel 4].

Both Rob Kearney and Ringrose are expected to take a full part in the session, while one of the areas Schmidt will hone in on this week will be ironing out the issues which caused Ireland’s lineout to malfunction on Saturday.

Sexton admits Ireland will need to step things up a few gears across all departments in the coming days. 

“There was probably bits in the set-piece from the forwards’ point of view, bits in the backline D from our point of view, bits of not taking some opportunities we created,” he said, looking back on the 28-17 win.

A couple of kicks which weren’t great, a couple of passes that weren’t… you know what I mean? All those things so it wasn’t just one thing that sort of led…they’re a good side as well.

“They’re one of the tier one nations now, they play against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia a lot. They play that real competitive rugby, they’re together all year round and they were always going to be an incredibly tough game from our point of view.

“Maybe from your [the media] point of view it was meant to be different but we knew it was going to be a really tough game and it was. There were bits we didn’t get perfect but to win against Argentina having had two sessions together, we’ll take some positives and some good learnings.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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