Ireland have not enjoyed what one would call a stellar Six Nations in 2020.
Ireland have slumped to two wins and one loss, and I often observe their playing style clearly revolving around their halfback duo. Perhaps great reliance is placed on Sexton’s shoulders. A pivot is someone outside the No. 9 calling shots.
It looks good when it works.
Against Scotland in a narrow 19-12 battle the opening try came from a lethal pass from Conor Murray, who went with a pick-and-draw off the ruck with Andrew Conway running an excellent dummy line and then Sexton striking the space to claim a try.
Let us consider two other plays he was involved in: one against Wales and another against England.
He took part in one, with the draw-and-pass from Conor Murray finding him, who fired the ball deep to Andrew Conway. His pass is not flat and does not add momentum. However, defenders scramble, and Conway throws an excellent pass to Keith Earls. Keith Earls runs a good line and releases Jacob Stockdale. This play ends after the Stockdale grubber is covered by the Welsh defenders.
We saw a good construction against England. Conway stepped in at first receiver and then put the ball away to Robbie Henshaw with Sexton running in behind. The ball slides back to Sexton, who does not have to face the mental pressure as he is behind a good screen of previous attackers. He runs and fires to Bundee Aki, who then unleashes Keith Earls. This is only a territorial play.
However, most of the tries in the Six Nations by Ireland were not influenced by Johnny Sexton. The three examples mentioned above were the three of the biggest bits of play under Sexton’s influence. The talisman-general is not so.
Ireland have often had him direct play, positioning him right next to rucks to drop off the phases.
He was a state of shambolism against England. He had been caught behind the gain line way too many times. His distribution was far too slow and he often resorted to carrying the ball into contact. Not once did he ever have a clean break.
The defensive pressure from England was how his game melted down. He missed two sitters at goal. One kick missed could be nerves, but two?
When your distributor, who the game is structured around, caves in, you end up with a result like that against England.
Conor Murray is not the problem.
I am no Conor Murray fan. I have often felt that his style of play is one-dimensional, constantly going left or right, and that he is just piling the ball in one direction.
However, rewatching some of the games helps me reconsider Murray.
He created the first try against Scotland. His pick-and-draw fixed defenders as he saw a wide gap for Johnny Sexton open. A dummy line hits defenders and Murray fires it away to get Sexton the try.
He made a strong decision in the first try through Jordan Lamour. His pass caught three Welsh defenders – Josh Adams, Nick Tompkins and Leigh Halfpenny – all running diagonally to drift.
His pick-and-go off the ruck against Wales instrumented Stockdale’s major line break. He found Sexton. Here Sexton fires it deep. Erroneous George North shoots up to try and kill the play and almost does so as Sexton’s pass gives Conway little space to run. However, Conway fires it away to Keith Earls, who gets the draw-and-pass to Jacob Stockdale for the break.
Against England he created a try by selecting Henshaw in between two defenders, and the centre rampaged over for a try.
Current Irish options
Honestly, why do we need Sexton if another guy can do the same?
Ross Byrne did a good pass to Lamour on the edge, who provided an over-the-top pass for Conway to cross the whitewash.
The dynamite is often provided by Lamour and Conway.
They have an interesting backline. Sexton has a subpar temperament and running game, and while his passing and kicking game is decent, his tactical thinking game leaves much to be desired.
Conor Murray provides some solid decision making and runner selection in attack. He has also been working on the pick-and-go for quite some time. He is making developments to mimic southern rugby, with the off-the-ruck sniping play like that of Aaron Smith, and on multiple occasions we saw him sniping off the rucks and passing, creating space and opportunities.
In the midfield Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw both serve as ball carriers and running options, Aki as a bruiser, Henshaw as an agile pacer.
Out wide Stockdale, Conway and Lamour all serve as speedsters. However, Conway and Lamour all have great passing, and they bring the dynamite to crack the defence when needed.
What is wrong?
Let us get things straight. I am not saying Ireland have tactical problems. They do not. They have selection problems. The main problem is: why are they even selecting Sexton?
Is he there to provide the dynamite? Unlikely. Lamour and Conway are often doing it, as they are the edge combo.
Should they opt for a playmaker No. 15 and select Keith Earls? The Irish structure is very good, and it gets a lot out of every individual player, but I just cannot quite picture what Sexton brings to the game.
Sexton should not be picked based on talismanic presence. He should be picked based on form. You do not need Sexton to win. Leinster won with him wearing No. 22 and fielded on the bench.
The structure is good now, with rather strong pieces in all aspects. It’s just that Sexton should not be the general.
Ireland need something different
Clearly the structure is not working with Sexton at No. 10. Any other flyhalf could slot in to play the distributor role if his temperament were good enough and his skills decent. Ross Byrne? Jack Carty? But Carty has fallen from grace with the Irish team. Joey Carbery?
The only time you want a solo pivot structure is when your No. 10 or whoever it may be is a king of composure, which Sexton clearly is not.
The three men behind Sexton all have so little experience, and is it safe to field inexperienced flyhalves? However, Sexton’s career is over the hill and coming to a curtain call, thus new blood must be introduced fast. There is no point for Sexton to be on if his temperament is subpar and they need to run moves to screen Sexton.
If the Sexton structure is not working as well, Ireland should have some tweaks. They could switch to being a carrying team and hit the ball into contact. They could have a dual pivot system. Carbery-Carty? Should they put Keith Earls on as a playmaking No. 13 or No. 15? Should they stick with Lamour, who showed to have some defensive positioning problems in the loss to England?
What I think is that some guys – in particular Murray, Conway and Henshaw – have all secured spots. The dual-threat of Conway is interesting as he can serve as a playmaker at times, and so can Lamour.
More playmakers? More runners? New No. 10s?
Let’s hope for Ireland that they can get their act together in the Eight Nations.