Sport: Oval Digest – Au Revoir Johnny
Not much seems to be going right for Leinster Rugby at the moment. Off the back of an early Heineken Cup exit caused by a lengthy early season injury list and some half cut performances, Friday saw one of the blackest days in the province’s professional history. Social networks were abuzz around mid morning with some big impending news, and confirmation came by way of an IRFU statement. Johnny Sexton had made his decision, and it wasn’t the one most wanted.
Since bursting onto the scene as a fresh faced novice in 2009, Sexton has gradually improved to the point where, on a good day, arguably only Dan Carter can claim to better him as an outhalf. Sexton’s first major touch in Irish rugby was to stroke a crucial penalty between the posts in the heat of a Leinster v. Munster Heineken semi, and that was to prove a good indicator of what was to come. From dropping a goal from halfway in the 2009 final, to playing gunslinger in two of Ireland’s best performances of the past 4 years (against England in 2011 and Australia in the World Cup), to dragging his Leinster team from behind against Northampton in Cardiff, Sexton has matured into one of the greats.
He’s still fresh faced, but not many can match Sexton’s brand of probing offensive moves, stand up defense and game management. Ireland will still reap the benefits of the Mary’s man’s considerable talent, though he’ll be a huge loss to Leinster.
Much has been said about the IRFU’s role in the negotiations. Still a semi-amateur organization in the professional rugby world, it’s undeniably difficult for the governing body to negotiate with the growing number of pro. Irish rugby agents.
However, some blame must lie at their door, given the reluctance to come straight out and offer their most marketable player top earner status last summer, when it’s mooted that Sexton first came looking for closure. Pro sports is pro sports however. Johnny weighed up his options and made the choice in good faith to head to Racing for two years.
Another strand to this story is the awakening it now gives to other Irish stars. Wales has seen a mass exodus of talent from their regions to France. Heading into upcoming negotiations, stars like Kearney, Healy and Fitzgerald must now have different thoughts in their minds.
Leinster now look unlikely to build on their three Heineken wins for the next few years anyway, with the retirements of O’Driscoll and Cullen also expected, and the loss of Conway (confirmed) and Van Der Merwe (all but confirmed). Ian Madigan will step into the 10 role and attempt to ‘do a Sexton’, while with 3-4 NIQ spots to play with, recruitment will need to be brisk and quality-laden.
This is a watershed moment for Irish rugby, and indeed Irish sport. The next few weeks should tell an interesting story.
In more positive news, Ireland begin their 6 Nations against Wales on Saturday with their best chance of winning in Cardiff for a while. Gatland’s Welsh side is injury hit, particularly in the front five, and, expecting a continuation of Ireland’s form from Autumn, we should travel in confidence. However, in this tournament, form generally goes out the window.
In what’s perhaps Declan Kidney’s last 6 Nations, a win away first up would be huge. Momentum is vital, and Ireland’s pack, now lead by Jamie Heaslip, will be hoping to make their mark on their Welsh counterparts.
I expect Ireland to win, just, and a good performance would be a bonus, setting us up for a mammoth clash in the Aviva with the old enemy.
My Irish team would be:
Healy, Best, Ross, McCarthy, Ryan, O’Brien, Henry, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, Zebo, D’arcy, O’Driscoll, Gilroy, Kearney
Kilcoyne, Cronin, Bent, O’Callaghan, O’Mahony, Reddan, Jackson, Earls