Jonny’s got no cover
The Racing Metro pivot has been stood down from action until Mid-February due to recurrent headaches and nausea caused by a fourth concussion this year. The news of this enforced rest brings the question of his importance to the national team into sharper focus. A twelve week layoff should now open the door for heirs to the throne to stake a claim.
The well being of Jonny Sexton is the most crucial element in the equation that sees Paul O’Connell raising the Webb Ellis trophy in Twickenham on the 31st of October 2015. Forget the importance of Sean O’Brien returning to fitness after two shoulder surgeries, or whether O’Connell can keep up his exceptional form that defies his 35 years all the way to the World Cup next September. Even the issue of Ireland possessing the required ‘X Factor’ now one of the true greats of the game has hung up this boots ranks secondary to this.
Since Sexton assumed the role of play maker and chief in that epic cameo in Croke Park in 2009 he has never looked back. A career that seemed to have stagnated for some time was revitalised. He is now, without question, the best out half in the game and critical to success next year.
Two key reasons underline this fact. The first being his world class ability on the field and his key influence on the Irish game plan. The second being the worrying lack of a fully rounded replacement to provide cover in the worst case scenario.
Ronan O’Gara upon his retirement left behind pretty big boots to fill, but Sexton not only filled these boots he polished them up and used them to achieve a winning Lions series and Six Nations championship. More success in the future is surely to follow.
Sexton now operates in an 8, 9, 10 axes for Ireland that can only be outdone by that of the All Blacks. The progress Conor Murray has made since the 2011 world cup is remarkable. On his day he has the beating of anyone. The consistency of Heaslip is astounding. How this man tolerates such punishment on a weekly basis without serious injury is quite astonishing. He is the best value for money in Irish rugby. The formation of this trinity, along with the high standards set within Irish provinces and of course the elevation of Joe Schmidt to national coach has helped propel Sexton to assume the mantle of the world’s best.
Schmidt has great faith in Sexton. He played a key role in Schmidt’s hugely successful tenure as Leinster boss. Having the full backing of the coach can have a significant impact on the form of any player. Sexton has gone from strength to strength since the Kiwi arrived on these shores.
So his status in the game is assured and he is the key to any success in England 2015, but what of a capable deputy? Who is to step in if disaster strikes and Jonny is not able to play?
Four players can be identified as capable if Jonny falls foul of injury. Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Ian Keatley and JJ Hanarahan are all vying for the number two spot. Such is the gulf in class between Sexton and the chasing pack, that the best any of the aforementioned could hope for would be a place on the bench. Although do not rule out Madigan or Hanrahan pushing for a place in the centre.
Ian Madigan has the best skills set to step in if required. He has proven what a world class place kicker he is over the last few seasons and one would suspect if Schmidt was still at the helm for Leinster he would be his first choice fly half. But the lack of faith in him from Matt O’Connor to command the No 10 jersey for Leinster is worrying.
A number of injuries at the province this season has meant a shuffling of the pack and Madigan being deployed elsewhere while Jimmy Gopperth wears ten. I am a firm believer that you get your best players in their best position, and Madigans is out half. A constant high performer in an underperforming Leinster side, it seems astonishing that Madigan hasn’t played more in his preferred position. This will definitely hurt his chances come the world cup, without game time at ten in the big games. His versatility is a coach’s dream however meaning his inclusion on the bench covers a number of positions.
Paddy Jacksons status was elevated hugely at the end of Declan Kidneys rein with Ireland. Now under Schmidt, injuries and average form has seen his status dwindle recently. With the imperious Ruan Pienaar operating at 9, Jackson hasn’t had to establish himself as the focal point of the Ulster team. With Pienaar assuming the kicking duties and taking a lot of responsibility away from Jackson it hasn’t helped his development to date. Ian Humphries has returned to his old stomping ground of Ravenhill which will provide much needed competition to push Jackson on. With Ulster effectively out of Europe and struggling domestically the time is now for Jackson to take control and claim the ten jersey in Sextons absence for the opening Six Nations fixtures. A tall order based on his current form and the shape of the Ulster side at present.
Ian Keatley has now established himself as the first choice ten for Munster. Anthony Foley began his campaign stating he would look to rotate between Keatley and Hanrahan but early indicates point to the former being his main man. Last minute heroics against Sale and Clermont so far this season have certainly aided his push for inclusion in the Irish setup. We are yet to see consistent dominant performances from the former Belvedere College man. He needs to impose himself more on each game and step out of the shadow of the great man who recently wore the famous red jersey. There is no doubt more quality lies in the Munster pack than the backline. Keatley should look to execute, a somewhat limited Munster game plan, to perfection. Schmidt wants a ten who can translate his philosophy to the field. By showing he can do this with Munster, Keatley has a great opportunity to impress Schmidt and force his way in.
JJ Hanrahan is some way down the list. Shortlisted for IRB’s Young Player of the Year in 2012 he was an equal to fellow nominee Handre Pollard in that World Cup. Since then one has gone on to assume the No 10 jersey for the full national side and topple the best team in the world, while the other has languished on the bench for his provincial side. Hanrahan has been unlucky with injuries it must be said. As of late, since rumblings in the media of unrest and interest from overseas suitors, JJ has been given his shot against Clermont at centre in Round 4 of the Champions Cup and the following week against Glasgow Foley put him in at ten. Ideally he needs to nail down the out half spot for the rest of the season but at very least he much make the starting team, whether that be in the centre or full back, on a weekly basis. Only consistent game time will properly him into the limelight and onto Joe Schmidt’s radar. His quality lines of running could see him as a future option in the centre or at full back. What he needs now is minutes on the pitch.
The four players mentioned above have the potential, some more so than others, to step in when needed. The keys to selection will be who is consistently playing at out half for their province and who Joe Schmidt thinks can get the job done.
Ireland need Jonny Sexton fit and firing on all cylinders to stand any chance of winning this world cup. Hope does remain though if injury was to strike. As the All Blacks proved in 2011, strength in depth (Aaron Cruden, Stephen Donald and Colin Slade) and a scrum half (Piri Weepu) willing to assume more responsibility meant that New Zealand got to see Richie McCaw lift the Webb Ellis for the first time in 24 years without the help of Dan Carter. Let us hope Ireland can repeat the same feat should Sexton be unable to tog out.