Richie Mo’unga and Johnny Sexton are both coming off good weekends.
Their respective teams won big games, against rather different backdrops, but the display from the Crusaders’ No 10, after a week of disruption which could easily have derailed him, shows he is made of the right stuff, mentally as much as technically.
But if both men are thrust into the white-hot atmosphere of Rugby World Cup playoffs action, I know who I am backing to emerge smelling of roses. And it is not the world’s ‘best player.’
Sexton is a classy player, of that there is no doubt. He has been so for a decade now, but there are lingering question marks over his mental toughness, Murray Mexted’s favourite mantra. There are no stats to measure mental toughness, but you just have to look closely at the big games, the tight games, the ones that really matter, to see who possesses that intangible.
At the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, Ireland was not able to rely on Sexton in the clutch stages. Ronan O’Gara was installed at pivot in the key moments, despite not being the all round player that Sexton is. O’Gara was, however, a big match performer, even though he tackled like a turnstile. But he spiral-punted beautifully and could call on a wealth of experience.
Two years later Sexton bottled a late, makeable penalty goal in Dublin which would have seen Ireland beat the All Black for the first time three years before it finally managed this feat.
We all thought Sexton had put his temperament issues behind him with a stellar 2018 season, culminating in a key role as Ireland lowered the All Blacks in November. He had exorcised those ghosts. He outplayed the 2016-17 World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett.
But then those ghosts returned to haunt Sexton during the 2019 Six Nations, where he gave a succession of error-ridden, insipid displays. He was not Robinson Crusoe, true, among a misfiring Ireland XV, but when your general is so off-colour, it raises red lights for coach Joe Schmidt. Joey Carbery and Jack Carty are waiting in the wings, as it were, should Sexton again falter in the RWC pool game against Scotland and then in the quarter-final as Ireland strive for a historic semifinal berth.
Mo’unga is, of course, the back-up to Barrett for the All Blacks, though he is the best pure No 10 in the country. He will probably suit up at No 10 against Canada and Namibia, but he could do the job just as effectively against South Africa or Ireland.
His 14-point haul in a nerveless outing against the Blues was evidence of that, not so much for that fact he played well, but that he did so with question marks over his intoxicated actions in Pretoria. He made an error of judgement in replying to a social media post relating to an incident he claims he cannot remember.
Jetlagged and under siege, there was only one option for him: to go out and give a top drawer effort against the Blues. He was under severe scrutiny and he passed the test, schooling young Harry Plummer, kicking his goals and running the cutter with aplomb. He would have scored a solo try, too, were it not for a high tackle by Melani Nanai.
You can count Mo’unga’s dud games for the Crusaders on one hand and still have three fingers left over. The 2017 British and Irish Lions clash was a dud. He had some technical issues with his goalkicking in February. But every match shows he has the unflappable temperament possessed of the great No 10s, including his predecessor Daniel Carter, the finest of all the first fives, flyhalves, call them what you will.
Last Saturday showed the sort of classy work that will have warmed the cockles of Steve Hansen’s heart. Johnny Sexton may have seen it, too, but he knows this is the mental toughness standard he must attain.
Sean O’Brien ruled out of the Rugby World Cup:
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