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Dublin: 0°C Saturday 10 April 2021

Where's Johnny? Sexton's minutes trail behind other out-halves

Johnny Sexton remains as important as ever to Ireland, but other out-halves have been far more visible in Japan.

Sexton's fitness has been a source of confusion in Japan.
Sexton's fitness has been a source of confusion in Japan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT IS SAFE to assume that Joe Schmidt’s intended plans for the World Cup pool stages have long been flung from a Japanese hotel window.

While Ireland headed to the Far East seemingly under the belief that an opening weekend defeat of Scotland would open the door to a quarter-final against South Africa, events have since transpired against the Ireland head coach.

Defeat to Japan, and a sluggish performance against Russia, were not in the original script.

As a result Ireland arrive into the final weekend of pool action with far more questions than answers, with the uncertainty surrounding Johnny Sexton perhaps the clearest indication of just how wrong this has gone for them.

No player in Schmidt’s 31-man squad comes under such scrutiny. No player’s minutes on the pitch are as carefully monitored.

The suggestion of a problem first reared its head when Sexton relinquished kicking duties in the first half of the 27-3 win against Scotland on the opening weekend, due to an injury later reported as a quad strain. Conor Murray took over the tee, kicking two from three but missing a shot that Ireland would be expected to take in the high stakes games that hopefully lie ahead.

Sexton then didn’t feature at all against Japan the following Saturday after failing to train fully on the Monday and Tuesday before the game.

Schmidt instead handed Connacht’s Jack Carty just his second start for Ireland, with bench cover coming in the shape of Joey Carbery, a player who hadn’t played a single minute since injuring his ankle in the warm-up game against Italy seven weeks previously. In hindsight, Ireland were left looking light on experience against a high quality team.

Carty started brightly but failed to control the game as Japan turned the tide and pulled off one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.

When the inquest began many wondered if Sexton should have been on the pitch, given that Schmidt admitted “we thought about bringing him off the bench” when naming his team to play Japan. If Sexton was indeed fit to play, then Schmidt clearly felt he could afford to keep the player wrapped in cotton wool. 

Sexton’s importance to the squad was underlined by the fact he was named captain for the following game against Russia. Few would have foreseen Sexton playing in that game before the World Cup, but the fact that he started at out-half, and was named captain ahead of Peter O’Mahony, felt like a statement. He was the man who could lift Ireland’s performance levels. 

There was no ignoring the fact that Ireland struggled once Sexton was replaced by Carty at half-time. The team function better when he is on the pitch. 

Sexton is now expected to start against Samoa on Saturday, a move with seems to carry as many potential cons as it does pros.

His importance to the team is clear, yet in an ideal world Schmidt would not have needed to risk his main man a week out from a potential quarter-final against either South Africa or New Zealand.

The risk increases when you account for Samoa’s love for the more physical aspects of the game. Given the way Sexton likes to play, he will do well to avoid shipping some heavy blows from the powerful, and at times reckless, Pacific Islanders.

If that wasn’t enough, the playing surface at the Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium has come in for criticism with the turf cutting up badly during previous pool games.

This is not the type of game a coach wants to throw Sexton into.

Yet while it is clear the team needs Sexton, there is a feeling that Sexton may also need this game.

So far, he has played just 97 minutes out of a possible 240 in Japan, the lowest of any of the first-choice out-halves among the top teams.

George Ford has more than double the amount of minutes as Sexton, clocking up 215 minutes so far for England. Wales’ Dan Biggar has played 173 minutes. 

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Elton Jantjies and Handre Pollard have both played 160 minutes in the No 10 shirt for South Africa.

Richie Mo’unga, rested for the 71-9 defeat of Namibia, played 146 minutes across New Zealand’s opening two games, with Beauden Barrett, perhaps the best No 10 in the world, instead lining out at full-back.

Australia, who seem unsure of their best out-half, have handed 139 minutes to Christian Leali’ifano.

The dilemma which has been facing Schmidt this week is whether to risk Sexton against Samoa, or risk him being undercooked against either New Zealand or South Africa a week later. It is worth noting that his only involvement in the four World Cup warm-up games was 63 minutes in the Aviva Stadium game against Wales.

Schmidt’s thinking is reportedly to give Sexton around an hour before getting some minutes into his equally absent understudy, Joey Carbery.

The head coach will be desperately hoping that it all goes off without a hitch.

The last month has only served to highlight Sexton’s importance to the team.

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