Ireland’s surprise loss to Japan has created some nerves amongst Irish supporters ahead of their final pool game. However, Ireland’s faith is more or less still in their own hands. Ireland will have to depend on other results if they are to top the group. However, should they secure a win against Samoa this Saturday, they will book a place in the quarter-finals.
Johnny Sexton has undoubtedly been Ireland’s best player throughout the tournament so far. His absence was well and truly felt versus Japan. Sexton managed to play an impressive 40 minutes versus Russia. He spared no time in reminding Irish fans what they were missing versus Japan. It was then a slightly worrying sight to see him icing his thigh on the bench in the second half.
Joe Schmidt has exuded calmness when confronted about Sexton’s fitness. His statement regarding Sexton following the Russia game was simple. The Ireland coach stated that “The plan was always to give him 40 minutes this week and 60 minutes next, and he’ll be pretty well perfect for whatever is after.”
Irish fans will have to have faith that Schmidt’s plan will play out perfectly. Realistically, Ireland should have no issues beating Samoa, with or without Sexton. Ireland are a class above Samoa in the rugby world at present. They have played Samoa 4 times in history and lost just once.
However, Ireland had never lost a test versus Japan from 7 previous games before their shock defeat. Schmidt’s side can’t afford another slip-up. They will need to guard against complacency and bring their best to Saturday’s game.
Ireland’s best, this tournament, has been Johnny Sexton. The difference in Ireland’s quality, with and without Sexton during this tournament has been clear for all to see.
In Sexton’s absence, the ‘10’ jersey has been worn primarily by Jack Carty. Ireland’s ready-made Sexton replacement, Joey Carberry, has only managed to play 20 minutes so far during the tournament. Carberry had been nursing an injury prior to the World Cup. He is still struggling to regain full fitness.
Carty has shown patches of real quality at ‘10’. However, the Connacht man has been far from totally convincing thus far.
The difference between Ireland with Sexton, and Ireland with Carty was most evident in the Russia fixture. Sexton played the first 40 minutes of that game, while Carty played the second 40 minutes.
Sexton expertly pulled the strings throughout the first half of the game, helping Ireland to a 21-0 lead at half-time. Ireland were much less impressive in the second half. It appeared to take Carty about 20 minutes to really get to grips with the game and help to get Ireland close to the level they were playing at in the first half.
It is true that Ireland’s one loss in the tournament, versus Japan, was a game in which Schmidt experimented tactically. Ireland’s tried and tested system was altered in this game. Schmidt attempted to use more wide overloads than he previously has with Ireland. The switch from his successful system did not work, and Ireland will pay the price.
However, the Japan game was also the one game that Sexton hasn’t featured in. Schmidt’s attempt to show tactical flexibility may have paid off had Sexton been playing. This would have made Ireland a much bigger threat for their opposition in the quarter-finals and beyond.
It also would have made qualification much easier, and eased nerves around the side. That Japan game may prove to be even more significant than it has already proven to be. It may prove to be the most crucial game of Ireland’s tournament. Sexton’s injury issues may ultimately make all the difference for the world number one’s.
Sexton has played just 100 minutes of Ireland’s World Cup thus far. During the 100 minutes that Sexton has been on the pitch, Ireland have scored a total of 45 points. This works out to 36 points per game with Sexton. Ireland have conceded just 3 points in the 100 minutes that Johnny Sexton has been on the pitch.
Ireland’s record during the tournament, without Sexton, is worrying. They have played 140 minutes without Sexton on the pitch. They have scored just 29 points during this time. This works out to Ireland scoring just under 17 points per game without Sexton. Despite playing 40 more minutes without Sexton, Ireland have scored significantly less than half as many points without him on the pitch.
Ireland have also conceded 19 points without Sexton on the pitch, 16 more points than when he is playing.
Sexton’s impact on Ireland is clear for all to see, and the stats back it up. His fitness will be key to Ireland’s tournament going forward.