Sexton 'definitely hasn't played enough rugby to be at full tilt yet'

The Ireland out-half has only played twice so far this year and lasted just 23 minutes against Scotland.

EVEN IN THE era of player management, the fact that Johnny Sexton has only played 103 minutes of rugby this year is a real shame.

This is, after all, the reigning World Player of the Year and a man who delivered so many moments of delight in 2018.

Johnny Sexton dejected after the game Sexton was replaced by Joey Carbery in the first half in Scotland. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Injury, namely a knee tendon issue, deprived Sexton of the opportunity to play in Leinster’s two Champions Cup games in January and although he completed Ireland’s defeat to England in their Six Nations opener, he lasted just 23 minutes of the win over Scotland two weekends ago.

The intelligent playmaker took a battering in the early stages of that encounter in Murrayfield before being forced off with a head injury, meaning he is sorely lacking in game time.

So while it might make some sense in the long-term for Joey Carbery to get a start against Italy this weekend, Joe Schmidt seems more likely to be of the mind that his first-choice out-half needs to start building some momentum.

“I think that’s the big thing, he hasn’t played a hell of a lot and because of that it makes it tough just to get the feel,” said Ireland assistant coach Richie Murphy yesterday.

“But the one thing that he’s always been able to do is come in and hit the ground running. The Johnny and Joey balance would be incredibly important and what way that pans out this week, we’ll just have to wait and see.

“But Johnny definitely hasn’t played a hell of a lot of rugby and obviously coming off the Scottish game, although he actually started really well in creating space for the try and a few overlaps on occasions where he was pretty close to actually unpicking them… so it’s getting that balance right, but he definitely hasn’t played enough rugby to be at full tilt yet.”

Getting Sexton and his halfback partner Conor Murray up towards full tilt, therefore, could be one of the key aims of this weekend’s visit to Rome.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton at Ireland training yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Whatever about learning more about his wider squad, Schmidt will be equally keen for Ireland to finish out this Six Nations strongly, building from the Italy game into a home tie with France and on towards a testing final round encounter with Wales in Cardiff.

“In relation to this week, there will be some changes in the team because it’s only natural, that will happen, but I can’t see it being wholesale,” said Murphy.

Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne are available again in the second row after missing out on the opening two rounds through injury, while Chris Farrell has been passed fit to continue at outside centre in Garry Ringrose’s absence, if selected.

Robbie Henshaw is also fit again and Murphy confirmed that deploying him at fullback “is something we still have in our minds.”

“There were some obviously eyebrows raised when he was put in there against England but we felt very comfortable with Rob. We felt he understood the position and the things that were going to be asked of him.

“The English kicking game managed to squeeze him into a few corners but I don’t think it would have been any different if it was a different player so, yeah, he was scape-goated a little bit. He is obviously a really good centre but he is capable of playing at number 15 as well.”

Whoever does take to the pitch for Ireland, the hope will be that Schmidt’s attack clicks into top gear and a convincing win builds confidence.

Ireland’s kicking coach Richie Murphy Murphy is hoping to see Ireland's kicking improve this weekend. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

There will also be an onus on Ireland’s kicking game improving, after disappointment in that department against Scotland.

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“It was poor,” said Murphy, who oversees this area for Ireland. “Not at the level we’d normally be at. It was very tricky in Murrayfield, the wind was howling around and it was very hard to know exactly where it was coming from and what it was going to do to the ball.

“Your kicking game is linked so much to team attack and team defence, just to isolate it out on its own is quite difficult because there are so many other elements that go into it.

“But it’s definitely an area of the game over the first couple of weeks where we haven’t been at the level we have been at before, and it’s definitely something we’re working on.”

Originally published at 07.20

Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look ahead to Ireland’s Six Nations meeting with Italy and discuss the week’s biggest stories in the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly.

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