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FEATURE Why Ireland haven't felt the loss of 'irreplaceable' Johnny Sexton

Why Ireland haven't felt the loss of 'irreplaceable' Johnny Sexton
5 months ago

The cost of living is rising relentlessly. The cost of food and fuel – up. The cost of energy and utilities – up. The cost of buying homes and cars – up. Most families are tightening the purse strings. It is usually the same atmosphere in sports after a major competition has finished.

In rugby terms, it would only be right to expect a period of retrenchment after the World Cup. Players are fatigued and often carrying injuries, feeling the weight of another big performance peak in an already-over-long season. Now is not the time to be seeking creative additions, or a rapid phase of new growth.

The Scotland-France game at Murrayfield is a typical example of the kind of fare that results – cagey to the point of risk-averse, focused on giving nothing away rather than embracing opportunities, a tenacious arm-wrestle rather than a dance of skill.

For France at least, there was an excuse ready to hand: the loss of the world’s best player, Antoine Dupont, to the national sevens programme. Replacing a once-in-a-generation talent would never be an easy matter.

Ireland might have used similar reasoning to justify a dip in performance and buy some time for a rebuild. After all, Andy Farrell had lost evergreen thirty-something Johnny Sexton to retirement and prevailing wisdom was the men in green could not afford to be without him. At least, not if they expected to win more silverware. Young Munsterman Jack Crowley would take the fly-half reins.

Back-to-back European Champions Cup winning coach of La Rochelle, Ronan O’Gara, poured a cooling dose of common sense over such concerns.

“It’s only natural that there’s a big void there,” he said. “But in setting Jack to succeed, you don’t want to be referencing Johnny all the time, because Johnny had his time and he was fantastic, and now it is Jack’s time. We don’t know where his ceiling is.”

With a write-up like that, it is no wonder O’Gara had tried to recruit Crowley for his own Rochelais squad only three years ago. Even when Crowley was stuck fast in a logjam of fly-halves at Thomond Park – including Ben Healy, JJ Hanrahan and oft-injured Joey Carbery – O’Gara suspectedthe 21-year-old might turn out to be the best of the entire bunch. As he commented in his column for The Irish Examiner at the time:

“He has already turned heads with his displays for the Ireland Under-20s. Crowley may be fourth in line at the moment, but things move quickly when you least expect them.

“Patience is a virtue in these situations and Jack is happy to bide his time and make his mark with Munster. I know all this because he has turned down the chance to sign for La Rochelle, with whom I am familiar.

Am I disappointed? Bloody right I am. This boy is a talent.”

Where outsiders saw only a deep dark hole in Sexton’s absence, O’Gara observed a hidden thread of natural evolution, and a newly-minted opportunity for both his old province and his country of birth.

Crowley is the same age [24] as Harlequins’ Marcus Smith but the curve of his progression could not be less similar. In Ireland, it is very much easier for a Crowley – or for that matter, a Ciaran Frawley or one of the Leinster Byrne brothers, Ross or Harry – to step into Sexton’s shoes because the systems are all familiar.

Smith has been shovelled into some very disparate systems at national level, first by Eddie Jones and latterly Steve Borthwick, playing patterns which have little in common with those at his club. Crowley can move from province to nation in the confident knowledge the expectations of him will be very much the same.

In his fledgling Test career thus far, Smith has been asked to start games with four different inside centres [Owen Farrell, Guy Porter, Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence]. Each has contrasting strengths and weaknesses, and all bar Tuilagi possess a skillset poles apart from his club 12 Andre Esterhuizen. Crowley has started games for his country with either Bundee Aki or Stuart McCloskey at 12. He knows the support he will get from both will be similar, and the attack systems will be near-identical to those in which he is embedded at Munster.

Crowley has therefore not only managed to replace one of the greats at his position satisfactorily, he has enabled the Ireland coaching staff to do what no nation has the right to do in the immediate backwash of a major competition; namely, to improve the creativity of their attack in a specific area of the field.

With Crowley at the helm, Ireland have increased the ratio of their offloads to carries from one offload every 23 carries at the 2023 Six Nations [the tournament average was one in 17] to one every 15 carries in the first two rounds of the same competition a year later. Furthermore, most of those offloads have occurred in the red zone, no more than 30m from the opposition goal line. They are enabling Ireland to strike more surgically, without allowing the defence to regroup.

In two rounds of play, Ireland have already offloaded the ball 18 times and six of those have produced tries. Offloading was the key to two of the Irish tries in the first-round thrashing of France in Marseille.

 

 

It is especially important for team with an acknowledged strength to be able to move beyond it. Ireland are the kings of the ruck-building: the men in green average 109 rucks per game and they use the breakdown to inject speed and momentum into their attack.

The threat of the offload – via first Aki and then his centre partner Robbie Henshaw – adds a new dimension which suits Crowley’s game perfectly. The tyro scored as early as the seventh minute in against Italy on Sunday.

 

Crowley gets his arms over the top of the tackle to release his club-mate Calvin Nash, then he is on hand on the next phase to finish off a pass from another man of Munster, number nine Craig Casey. At the beginning of the second quarter, the new 10 was at it again.

 

On this occasion, Crowley demonstrates his proficiency at the underarm offload around the back of the tackler, then Henshaw tacks on one of his own for good measure to give Dan Sheehan room for a joyful gallop down the left. The 10’s offloading genius was infectious, bringing the best out of the two men outside him and particularly, the Ulster giant McCloskey.

 

 

On two occasions McCloskey extends the full range of his 6ft 4.5ins frame to deliver basketball-type offloads from above head level which engineer a break on the edges of the field, in one of his most effective attacking international performances.

Thus far at least, the absence of the ‘irreplaceable’ Sexton has scarcely been noticed, and Crowley has become so smoothly embedded he is already offering a real point of difference.

Ireland are not just building their typical momentum through the speed of delivery from the breakdown, they are adding prudent passes after contact in the opposition red zone, to ensure a broken defence has no chance to be anything other than broken. It is rare glimpse of sunlight in a championship which has to date, been shrouded in humdrum grey.

Comments

79 Comments
R
Red and White Dynamight 152 days ago

Sexton massively overrated. Crowley is the real deal and Ireland are more of a threat now than they ever were.

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Anthony 154 days ago

To me .Ireland are not only brilliantly coached , a squad was picked who play in their best positions and understand what they are supposed to do. JC has slotted into the ethos and will do well.
Compare this to the scattergun approach to selection England have , players constantly out of their best position .No idea what their game plan is supposed to be.
Its no wonder Ireland look so good .

j
john 156 days ago

They will still choke at the next World Cup with a foreigner as coach ha ha

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Mzilikazi 156 days ago

It is interesting that Crowley has replaced one of Ireland’s great 10’s in Sexton, just as Sexton did himself, when he replaced Ronan O’Gara. Time will tell, but for the past year, I have felt that Crowley may prove to be another very good 10. Mind you, I still think Ireland has let a very good man go over the seas to Scotland. Ben Healy is, in my view, a very good 10 indeed, and I would hope he is the replacement for the great Finn.

D
Derek Murray 156 days ago

I wonder, as I did at the time, if a fresh pair of legs over the last 15/20 in the QF against ABs might have produced a different outcome. Sexton walked the last quarter and presented zero challenge for the defenders well drilled with an attacking strategy they were unwilling to deviate from

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Nickers 156 days ago

They haven’t felt the loss of Sexton because their forwards, and all the players around him are possibly the most efficient and effective rugby machine since the 2015 ABs. He’s a very high quality 10 who is showing he is great when on the front foot, but anyone can play that role. The benchmark of how much they miss Sexton will come in the summer.

July tests vs SA will be the most pressure a 10 can come under. Sexton was one of the best in those types of situations. In a super close arm wrestle Sexton almost always played his best games, and came up with clutch plays.

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Colin 156 days ago

While Crowley is a good player any 10 that plays behind the current Irish forwards and 9 will look good. Reserve judgement if and when the Ireland team are under pressure.

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