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Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony stand for the anthems.
# Influence
Sexton and O'Mahony lead the way again on another historic day for Irish rugby
The two most experienced players in Ireland’s team were to the fore during a famous win in Dunedin.

SO OFTEN IN sport we preoccupy our minds with thoughts of what is coming next. Who is coming through the academy? Who are we signing over the summer? Who is the manager going to hand a debut to?

Today was not a day for thinking about what’s coming down the line. Today was a day to savour something we’ve been able to enjoy for years as two of the greatest players to ever wear the green jersey played major roles in another milestone achievement for Irish rugby.

There were any number of outstanding performers as Andy Farrell’s squad left the Forsyth Barr Stadium with a 23-12 win over the All Blacks, writing their name in history as the first Ireland team to ever win on New Zealand soil.

Tadhg Beirne put a frustrating couple of months behind him with an influential, all-action display. Andrew Porter locked in the scrum and scored two tries that sealed the win, perhaps the greatest day of his young career so far. Caelan Doris responded to a quiet outing in Auckland last week with a masterful display. His backrow partner Josh van der Flier was superb. As was Robbie Henshaw. As was substitute Bundee Aki, thrown in during the first half for the injured Garry Ringrose.

Yet it was the two most seasoned veterans in the team who really rose to the occasion, captain Johnny Sexton and long-serving backrow Peter O’Mahony. 

finlay-bealham-johnny-sexton-and-peter-omahony-during-the-new-zealand-haka Billy Stickland / INPHO Sexton and O'Mahony face the haka. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Both men have been part of some special days throughout their distinguished careers. Here was another for the scrapbook.

Let’s get the Sexton selection out of the way first. His removal for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) last Saturday led to an ugly build-up to the second Test for a man who has become all too used to discussing the health of his brain. Sexton was cleared to play today, but it’s safe to say there were mixed opinions as to whether he should have.

He spent his 73 minutes on the pitch showcasing just why Ireland were so desperate to have him steering the ship, earning the cake that will land in front of him with 37 candles on Monday.

What the out-half is doing at this stage of his career is exceptional. Without him, Ireland – and Leinster – are a different team. 

johnny-sexton-with-beauden-barrett-as-garry-ringrose-is-tackled-off-the-ball-resulting-in-a-yellow-card-for-ofa-tuungafasi Billy Stickland / INPHO Sexton breaks forward against the All Blacks. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton brings a supreme level of quality to everything he does. He nails his kicks, nearly always picks the right options and his passing is highly accurate in both it’s timing and execution.

Time and again today, he orchestrated Ireland’s attack and opened up the pitch with short-passes that found teammates running smart support lines – Aki and Beirne being two of the biggest beneficiaries here.

He twice almost sent Mack Hansen through, his range of passing stressing and stretching the All Blacks as Ireland quickly found their rhythm in attack. Moments later he had the last hands on the ball before Porter powered over for Ireland’s first try. That was all just in the opening three minutes.

His ability to make those defence-splitting passes look easy is the product of exceptional game intelligence, his eyes and ears the most vital components of Ireland’s attacking shape.

His kicking and link-ups with Ireland back three also built pressure on the All Blacks while ensuring his own team played the game in the right areas of the pitch – Ireland enjoying 63% of the territory in Dunedin.

And despite the ongoing concerns around his ability to see out back-to-back Tests – Warren Gatland’s thoughts on this when selecting a Lions squad last year lighting a fire in the 36-year-old – Sexton doesn’t sit in the pocket and shy away from the more physical side of the game. He’ll play high if it improves his chances of pulling off the right pass, and he’ll also run with the ball if the opportunity presents itself – tearing up the left wing at one point in the first half.

As Sexton led the charge for Ireland’s backline, O’Mahony – alongside Munster teammate Beirne – shone in the pack.

Like Sexton, O’Mahony brings a presence to the pitch that only a select few players carry. Both have an ability to elevate the players around them.

hugo-keenan-and-peter-omahony Billy Stickland / INPHO Peter O'Mahony provides the support as Hugo Keenan carries into contact. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The Munster captain continues to have his doubters but his ability to shift the momentum on the big occasions is phenomenal; a big game player who delivers big game moments. He did it numerous times for Munster last season – the Champions Cup home ties against Exeter and Toulouse being the two outstanding examples.

He’s been a thorn in All Blacks’ sides before, of course. The 2018 game in Dublin was perhaps his finest outing at Test level, O’Mahony winning penalties, pinching lineouts and smothering a Beauden Barrett grubber to deny Ben Smith a try at a crucial juncture.

Four years later he was at it again, the keen gardener flinging New Zealand bodies out of his way like weeds from a flower bed.

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Much of his good work comes in the less glamorous, less celebrated areas of the game – managing breakdowns, hitting his tackles, keeping the defence organised, nullifying the opposition.

But he also brings a strong passing game and is guaranteed to produce moments that make the whole stadium take notice. It’s nothing new to see O’Mahony win turnover penalties or be the first man on to a loose ball, but there was a double-take required when his Andrea Pirlo-equse flick with the outside of the boot delivered a superb 50:22 in the second half. Big moments.

Crucially with both Sexton and O’Mahony, their words are just as important as their actions. Both vocal presences on the pitch, they drive standards, direct players around them and bring a level of aggression which is sometimes missing in Irish players. Sexton can rub referees up the wrong way, but he can also get in the face of opponents and lift a crowd. O’Mahony also rarely turns his nose up at an opportunity to get under an opponent’s skin.

How often have we seen Leinster or Munster drop off when their inspirational captains leave the pitch?

In an ideal word, the two would be being pushed harder for their places with both club and country, but they should also be commended for their longevity. Many backrowers have come and gone since O’Mahony first became a fixture of the Ireland team back in 2012, while Sexton has spent a decade as Ireland’s first-choice out-half. 

The challenge for Ireland now is keeping both men fit and firing for next year’s World Cup in France. Ireland’s opening game is 14 months away, to the day. There’s a lot of rugby to be played in the space between.

With a series on the line next weekend, those concerns can wait for another day. Despite this being a tour where we hoped to discover more about Ireland’s squad depth, it is Sexton and O’Mahony who remain crucial to their chances in Wellington in seven days’ time.  

Originally published at 15.53

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