Johnny Sexton will not alter his confrontational playing style, Ireland assistant coach Richie Murphy has insisted. Boss Joe Schmidt admitted Sexton acts as bait to opposing defenders in the wake of the fly-half’s head injury scare in Ireland’s 22-13 Six Nations win in Scotland.
British and Irish Lions star Sexton carries the ball flat to the line, passing at the very last instant to create space for his team-mates – and skills coach Murphy insisted any change would curb that threat.
Sexton lasted just 24 minutes of Ireland’s slender win in Edinburgh on February 9, but is fully fit for Sunday’s trip to Rome to face Italy. “He plays flat on the line; when you play flat on the line, you are going to get hit,” said Murphy.
“Obviously we don’t want him off the pitch, but there is definitely a fine line between what is fair and what isn’t fair. As long as the referees are able to judge that and decide that, Johnny is not going to change the way he plays.
“If he changes, he is not the same player he was. He doesn’t create the same holes for players that he creates for other people. Then there is no point in having him. It’s a two-fold thing really. The idea of him changing his game so that he can stay on the pitch doesn’t really fit.
“He needs to play the game he feels is best. He is a confrontational type of character, he wants to play on the gain line. He wants to create space for others. I can’t see that changing.
“He is going to play the game the way he has done for the last number of years, which is part of what made him World Player of the Year. If it brings him to that level I can’t see him going away from that.”
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 20, 2019
Sexton’s careful positioning drew Scotland’s defenders out of the line en route to Jacob Stockdale’s fine set-play score as Ireland shrugged off their opening-weekend defeat to England at Murrayfield.
Munster fly-half Joey Carbery piloted Ireland to victory after Sexton was withdrawn injured, further underscoring his steady Test level progression. Head coach Schmidt might be tempted to hand Carbery a start in Rome, given the continued need to grow depth with one eye on the autumn World Cup.
But various injuries have restricted Sexton’s game time this term, and Ireland might want to hand him further exposure ahead of the remaining Six Nations clashes with France and Wales. Asked if Sunday’s Italy encounter would be the perfect time for Carbery to start, a cautious Murphy replied: “With all these games it is about getting the right mix on the pitch.
“Joey obviously played a lot of the Scottish game so it is trying to balance that up with game time for Johnny. We’ve watched them training over the last few days. Both guys are in good form. We’ll just make a decision a little bit later on.
“Joey has started games for us before; I don’t think he has started a Six Nations game. It would be a natural progression for him at this stage. Obviously he came on when Johnny went off very early against Scotland. He probably had a little bit of a shaky start but built into the game. Those opportunities, when they come along, he needs to grasp them with both hands.”
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