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"Ireland were a year older & a year more obvious" - Stuart Barnes on Sexton's importance to Irish success

Ciaran Bradley
Ciaran Bradley

18:22 21 Aug 2019


Stuart Barnes believes that a fit and confident Johnny Sexton is crucial to Irish World Cup hopes, and thinks that Ireland have been too predictable in their play this year.

The former England player and current pundit spoke to Off The Ball about Sexton's form and fitness, and why he is so crucial to a team that has been staid in their play.

"I felt that Ireland were just a year older and just a bit more obvious last year," said Barnes.

"I felt that it was mirrored in the European Cup, where a year earlier Leinster looked to be the best team by a distance. Last year, Saracens looked the best team by a defence.

"There is a correlation there, because the best of Ireland is wrapped up in the best of Leinster. That is a concern because Leinster were trying to keep the lids on anything.

"I think it is a concern because age is a factor; you look at Ireland now and you are thinking 'how do they change that game?'

"They have got to find more than that Sexton two-touch wrap-around, they have to be able to get Ringrose into the game, Henshaw has to find more to his game.

"There are lots of question marks. But I will say that in the last ten years or so, Joe Schmidt has been one of the most interesting, innovative coaches I have seen.

"I remember when he was at Leinster, they developed from Michael Cheika's game to one that played with great width, and I have been slightly surprised that Ireland shrank down to a team that didn't take risks.

"It wouldn't surprise me if Joe Schmidt had a two-year plan going in to the World Cup."

Whatever that plan may entail, it is certain that success is far more likely with a fit and firing Johnny Sexton.

Sexton has been sidelined with a dislocated thumb since early July, and appears unlikely to feature against England this weekend.

However, concerns abound around Sexton's form and fitness, and Stuart believes that Sexton is key to the Schmidt's plans and Irish success.

"They are substantial [concerns around Sexton's play]. They are major because he is Joe Schmidt's emissary on Earth; on the rugby pitch.

"What Schmidt wants to happen mainly goes through Sexton. It's all well and good the forwards picking and driving, getting those meters and the magnificent ball-management. But at some stage, all those little incrementals have to amount to something.

"Ireland aren't going to be a team that wins a World Cup from scoring tries from 70 meters out, let's not kid ourselves.

"They have to keep-ball, and they have to use that keep-ball to gain territory. Possession equals territory, territory equals pressure, pressure equals points - you have got yourself a chance. That is how they beat New Zealand.

"If Sexton is not right, then I think it is fair to say that Ireland are going to be in one hell of a hole because he is such an outstanding player.

"They have got no-one in that same breath at the moment. They have players of potential, but no-one like Sexton.

"He is Schmidt's man, and while [Rory] Best may have been captain for years, [Sexton] is the intellectual axis of this team.

"You are right to be worried about Sexton, I don't think that he had a great year even though Ireland tried to wrap him up in cotton wool. Having said that, he is still in cotton wool in Portugal at the moment.

"With the state of medics at the moment, it would be no surprise if the wraps come off in Japan and he is in good shape.

"If that happens, then all bets are off, with Ireland being sixth-ranked in the world."

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