Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Racing to the top


"Come on in, Against the Head is just starting!"

"Ah, cool, you know I wish this show was on every week throughout the rugby season!"

"Is that Bernard Jackman?"

"Yeah, wait for him to say 'soft shoulders' at some point."

"You mean the same way Donal Lenihan always says 'tremenjus'?"

"Precisely."

Pundits are part of the circus these days, we all know that.  And outside the legitimate analysis, it isn't just the curmudgeonry of George Hook that keeps us interested, either.

Apart from the two catchphrases Mrs P & I (genuinely) talked about last night, we also have the esteemed Mr Gerry Thornley, who has been known to coin a phrase to inspire the name of a great rugby blog himself in his time.

But lately as he appears on any podcast he can physically make it to, I have noticed him develop another verbal habit - he couldn't say the name Jonathan Sexton without it being closely followed by the phrase "...the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere", and this has been going on pretty much since the move to Racing Métro was first mooted.

After last weekend, however, it would appear Thorinho's description has received an upgrade, albeit with the help of Conor Murray...

"(Schmidt) has got the best 9/10 combination possibly in the world right now, and certainly that Irish rugby has ever had!"


High praise indeed!  But with Dan Carter still out of the picture it certainly isn't an unfounded description.

All of which begs the question...has the move to Racing Métro been the complete disaster we all thought it would be?

Well, when it comes to injuries, it won't do Joe Schmidt's blood pressure any good between now and the end of the season to see Sexton togging out in the sky blue & white hoops.

But on the other hand...given the Ireland coach is such a fan of "high risk for high reward", he must also concede, if only privately, that for a player like Sexton to be involved week in, week out like he has been in the Top 14 can only serve to improve his game.

In team sports in general and rugby union in particular, simulating match situations can only take you so far.  The only true simulation is playing a match that matters, and I'd have no fear suggesting that the regular top level game time he has been getting in France helped him both kick 6 for 6 and stay focused on the game plan throughout the contest on Saturday.

That's not to take anything from Murray, make no mistake.  Having a quality 9 will always help make a quality 10 look even better, and given both are such threats in running, kicking AND passing, It really does make the combo the complete package.

Besides...when it comes to injuries, let's face it - it's not like the player protection protocols have done wonders for keeping our treatment room clear, have they?  Irony of all ironies is the lengthy absence of Sean O'Brien after all the palaver over how brutal a stint in France would be for someone of his ball-carrying prowess.

So let's not get too het up about the possibility of Sexton facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines shall we.  Every player runs that risk when they take to the field whether it's at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir, Aviva Stadium or RDS; it's all part of the sport.

Instead let's enjoy what he is bringing to this Ireland team - an astute rugby brain, a stickler for detail, a total Schmidt-ball convert, and most of all for me, his immense strength...how many 10s in the modern game will not only bring the ball to the gainline after 71 minutes but also have the stones to put a straight-arm fend on someone the size of Duane Vermeulen?  Murray & Bowe were superb for that try but don't forget what came first to help set them up.

We want all our stars at home, it's true - great to hear this morning that Rob Kearney put pen to paper.  And it will of course be awesome to see Johnny back in Leinster blue next season (though I can't for the life of me see himself and Matt O'Connor working together - thankfully that's a good ways down the road).

But by the same token, let us also appreciate that every minute his fitness survives in France also means another minute's worth of form for Ireland.  I have a funny feeling the best is yet to come.  

Oh, and by the way...on the conversation at the start of this piece - Berch didn't let me down, using the phrase when talking about Robbie Henshaw.

#ShoulderToShoulder  JLP

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