Protecting Sexton

Posted: February 23, 2016 in Uncategorized

The subject of Jonathan Sexton’s durability has been one of constant discussion for not only the last number of weeks, but for the last number of seasons. When he joined Racing 92, both he and the media expressed how much more of a toll the average season was taking on his body.

He returned to Ireland a tired body. He had played more games than he would have at home, and sustained more injuries as a result.

He tackles hard (sometimes too high for comfort) and takes a beating every time he steps on the pitch. Jonny Wilkinson was the same. Gifted with distribution skills, be it from the hand or boot, and an aggressive defender. In Ireland’s opening Six Nations game against Wales, he walked off the pitch with eyes tightly shut, hand clutched to the chest, in obvious pain. Again, he took a beating for his team.

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Sexton comes off the pitch against Wales in obvious pain

And finally, the word that has been thrown around the media in the last six months like never before, there’s concussion. Sexton is a player who relishes the physicality of the sport. He was forced to sit out a number of games last season and this is brought up in the media after what feels like every game.

A fit Jonny Sexton, in Joe Schmidt’s mind, is Ireland’s starting outhalf. This has become clear in the last number of weeks, especially when he was far from Ireland’s in-form flyhalf leading up to the tournament. Schmidt faces the dilemma of protecting his play maker and having him on the pitch. But there’s a way he could accomplish both.

It starts with team selection. Keep Sexton in the ten spot, but have Stuart McCloskey at inside centre. This would free up a 13 position for either Henshaw or Payne, with the other playing at fullback instead of Rob Kearney.

This isn’t a case of simply swapping 10 and 12 at defensive lineouts and scrums; why not move Sexton to 15, and have your 15 in the defensive line. The reason I’m opting to take Kearney out is not due to a defensive weakness, but due to the fact he has offered very little in attack in the last few seasons.

It would require some work, such as training Sexton to defend at 15 off set pieces, or training a centre or fullback to defend at 10, but that is extremely doable. A number of problems could arise, but so too do simple solutions.

Opposition teams would still run at the 10 channel hoping to exploit a defensive weakness, but you still have the covering backrow coming around. Off scrums, you may have a back line move looking to counter the fact a player is out of position at 10, but so many back line moves look to go wide that the worst to be dealt with was a simple one-off runner looking for a speed bump.

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A banged up Sexton playing with Racing 92

If Sexton stood at 15, teams may choose to bomb him with high balls with pressure from wingers. And although Sexton may not be as solid as Rob Kearney under high balls, he is still very comfortable under them. I’m sure Schmidt would would rather Sexton taking the odd hit of a winger than a constant stream of runners down his channel.

Then there’s the strong possibility that the opposition kickers overcook their target and leave him space to counter kick. He’s usually there during open play anyway, so what’s different? He’s just safer from the front line. The argument of not having a running fullback is also void; Ireland don’t play the Alex Goode type or fullback.

I imagine a lot of people are going to say that this idea would never work and that a specialised 10 should stick to their channel. I’d urge those people to look at Australia during the last Rugby World Cup. Bernard Foley acted almost like a winger in most games during defence, as the Wallabies sought to protect their most valuable play maker. In the end, they reached the final. Super Rugby teams also adopt this system in games, looking to keep their flyhalves away from the heavy hits in defence.

On turnover ball, Sexton may not be first receiver for the first phase, but so what? Any international back should be able to catch the ball and pop it to a forward or, better still, act as first receiver for a phase.

This is a defensive pattern that would require some work, but not a major amount. It would allow Ireland to keep their flyhalf on the pitch, but to protect him to a higher decree. Pressure kicks, although never easy, wouldn’t be faced by a battered body; they’d be faced by a fresher flyhalf.

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