Home Features Darren Cave Column: Our Future At This World Cup Rests On Johnny Sexton’s Fitness

Darren Cave Column: Our Future At This World Cup Rests On Johnny Sexton’s Fitness

Back on track with a victory, but it was again unconvincing at times for this Ireland side, writes Darren Cave.

The scoreline tells one story, but the manner of the victory tells another. Ireland’s subdued performance in the 35-0 victory over Russia was far from the backlash we would have hoped for following the disappointing defeat to Japan. We may have secured the bonus point, but there weren’t too many positives to take from Thursday’s win in Kobe. Joe Schmidt’s side now enter a much-wanted break period, before facing Samoa on Saturday week, but the performances thus far have left us with quite a few questions and not enough answers.

rory best

Over-Reliance On Johnny Sexton

12 months ago, Ireland were riding the crest of a wave of positivity, and one that looked destined for World Cup glory. Coming into the World Cup, my feeling was that Joey Carbery was ready to make his mark and announce his arrival on the biggest of stages.

Yes, Johnny Sexton is our best player, but in Carbery, it looked like we had someone who was ready to step up if Sexton did succumb to injury. I was blown away by some of his performances with Munster, particularly against Gloucester.

Fast forward to today and a pre-World Cup Carbery injury combined with a number of shaky team performances have seen our hopes of a maiden RWC victory hang by a thread, all being held together by Johnny Sexton.

Carbery was named on the bench as cover at scrum-half for the Russia game but had to pull out prior to the beginning of the game. There’s no time to play him into form and fitness now and as a result, the more fragile Ireland’s reliance on Johnny Sexton’s fitness becomes. Jack Carty is a great player, and his potential is exciting, but he is very early in his international journey. If we were a year further down the line with Carty, I would feel more confident in his ability to soften the blow when Johnny’s not playing.

sexton carbery

Joe Schmidt has had four years to build depth at the out-half position, but it would be unfair to point to our current situation as a failing of his own doing. Four years ago he would not have known that both Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan would be unavailable for selection, and he also would have probably expected Ross Byrne to have travelled, but that was before Jack Carty’s emergence at this level. Six months ago, I’ve no doubt Joe would have been overly pleased with his options, thinking it was the perfect situation heading into the World Cup, but now that we find ourselves in a sticky situation, it is one that is a result of uncontrollable circumstances, as opposed to a lacking on Schmidt’s part.

Pressure Affecting The Squad?

The narrative following Ireland’s performances have centred around a supposed lack of energy amongst the squad. While the conditions in Japan are no doubt playing a part, I don’t believe it to be as big a contributing factor to our performance as some may like to believe.

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When I played, I quite often felt that when things weren’t going well, people were quite quick to question energy levels. “Oh, they looked flat. They’ve no energy.” But sometimes a team looking flat and tired is a consequence of something else going wrong, as opposed to a cause of something going wrong.

Very often, people try to point to the reason the attack isn’t going well is because it’s low energy, but I often found the reason you’re low energy is because the attack is not fully clicking and that becomes energy-sapping in itself. Going from side-to-side, getting smashed, not going forward with the ball, everything can become an absolute mess. That’s sapping, and low energy is the consequence of all those factors. When you get up from a ruck and see someone being smashed five yards backwards, there’s no way that puts a spring in your step.

If we think back to the victory over Scotland, Iain Henderson produced a wonderful show-and-go and broke through. The Ireland players immediately flowed through with him and that wasn’t because they were more energetic or trying harder, it’s because a good play has given the players positive energy and propelled them forward. Momentum is massive in rugby, and we seem to be struggling to generate it consistently.

Andrew Conway’s Emergence As A Star Performer

If there’s one player in this Ireland team that has benefitted hugely from the World Cup and the build-up, it’s Andrew Conway.

Mark McDermott

I felt prior to the pre-season that Conway was not going to be on the plane to Japan, but I’m happy to have been proven wrong. He has been great so far and is really delivering during this tournament. I was commentating on the USA game in the Aviva back in November 2018, and Conway was outstanding that day, scoring a hat-trick of tries. He followed that up with a man-of-the-match performance against Italy in the warm-ups and then was fantastic again versus Wales in August.

Conway was one of the star performers against Scotland, and the try he scored was richly deserved given that he originally won the ball in the air in the build-up before touching down a few phases later. The big call for Schmidt now is whether to put him in the starting XV for the quarter-final clash with South Africa or New Zealand. Is Andrew Conway in the driving seat? Well, he can’t be far away. The problem is trying to fit him into a backline that currently includes Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls on the wings, along with Rob Kearney at full-back. The dilemma that exists between ‘money in the bank’ á la past performances versus current form is one that will likely see Joe favour the tried and tested, rather than take a risk on Conway, which is unfortunate given his excellent displays thus far.

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If I was coaching Ireland, I would likely sway towards ‘money in the bank’, as it is much more of a risk to ignore what certain players have done in big games over the years, in favour of a less experienced player that has hit a run of form. Joe has proven in the past that he leans slightly more towards ‘money in the bank’ and he’s right to do that. Conway has not only put one hand up for selection, he’s thrust his arms and legs into the sky and left his head coach with a real selection headache.

It’s surprised me that Joe has never really looked at Conway as a genuine option at full-back, so I would be amazed to see him change that with so much on the line in Japan. For me, Rob Kearney has delivered in big games too many times for his country the years to be left out, so that 15 jersey is still very much his own. It looks like a straight shootout between Conway and Jordan Larmour, but the latter hasn’t put a foot wrong yet and Schmidt has consistently favoured him in the past.

Conway has been so impressive for Ireland this year, arguably one of the country’s top performers, but unfortunately for the Munster man, he is unlikely to start the quarter-final if Ireland have a full deck of cards to select from. On form, the jersey is Andrew Conway’s every day of the week. On ‘money in the bank’, Joe will likely favour one of his teammates, and that will undoubtedly be a tough pill to swallow for a player that has been playing out of his skin.

Looking Ahead

It’s hard to envision any real benefits coming from the game with Samoa next Saturday. We’re expected to win, and we’re expected to get the bonus point. Games like that rarely throw up many positives. the bonus point is a necessity, but of equal importance is getting our big players through the game relatively unscathed.

This Ireland team is capable of delivering bucketloads more than it has at this competition thus far, but if Johnny Sexton (our best player) gets injured, then it’s difficult to not see our campaign ending at the quarter-final stages.

About Darren Cave

Darren Cave is a former Ireland and Ulster Rugby player.