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Skipper Sexton will steady the ship: Schmidt

Game management: Johnny Sexton sat out the Japan loss
Game management: Johnny Sexton sat out the Japan loss

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Of the 620 players currently playing at this World Cup, none is more important to his team than Johnny Sexton.

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You could make a case that England would struggle without Owen Farrell, while New Zealand need Beauden Barrett, but for this Ireland team it is increasingly apparent that their fate is wedded to the form and fitness of the 34-year-old, reigning World Player of the Year.

By naming his leading man as cap­tain for tomorrow's clash with Russia, Joe Schmidt played his part in building a redemption story around him.

He could have picked Peter O'Ma­hony, as he did in Australia in 2018, but instead he's handed the key leadership role to the man who has played the big­gest role in his teams' successes since he came to Ireland.

This is as much the Sexton era as it is the Schmidt era and, as the coach heads to the exit doors in the coming weeks, his legacy will be defined by Sexton's ability to produce.

It's only a game against lowly Russia, but the nation will tune in looking for signs that Saturday's malaise was an aberration, that this team can achieve something special in the coming weeks.

Part of the reason for Ireland's Six Nations fall-off was that Sexton's standards fell from the lofty heights of a year ago.

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Having put one foot in the quarter-fi­nals by beating Scotland, Schmidt decided not to risk Sexton against Japan.

In terms of the result, the gamble failed but the coach felt he was play­ing with house money. They would beat Russia without him, but his calming presence will help steady the ship.

"The good thing for me is I've worked with Johnny for probably 10 years so I'd like to think I know him pretty well and I know how competitive and com­bative he is," Schmidt said.

"Sometimes I watch him in play and he's getting stuck into counter-rucks and I'm saying, 'just get the hell out of there, Johnny, and leave some of the big boys do that'.

"But he's no shrinking violet, sort of lightweight himself.

"I think his ability to control a game, to see a game a little bit ahead of where it's happening, I think that's a massive strength.

"Now, he brings that without being captain but I do think it's something where we want to have a really com­petitive and combative approach this week and I think Johnny is ideal to lead that because of the character he is, let alone the qualities as far as his game management and the individual skill that allows other people get into the game.

"Those things combined give me the confidence to do that. We've got some really good leadership around the team as well - Peter O'Mahony and Rhys Ruddock have both captained Ireland so they'll look after the pack for a fair degree of the time.

"And we've got other leaders like Rob Kearney at the back, Keith Earls on the edge and Garry Ringrose.

"So we feel like we're really well cov­ered with support for Johnny in what is a real honour but it's an honour that people have had to work a long time for and work very hard for and I think it's a deserved honour."

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