Johnny Sexton in action for Ireland
More than any other player, Johnny Sexton is man trusted by Joe Schmidt to ensure that his meticulously prepared game plans are accurately executed. The fly-half was watching from the stand on Saturday when Ireland were overwhelmed by Japan - and for the reigning World Player of the Year it made for particularly painful viewing.
Even when his team is going well, the fly-half has always found it hard to watch games when he’s unable to influence them. But when they are going as badly as they did in Shizuoka, it must be a form of torture for the 34-year-old.
Left out of Ireland’s 23 on precautionary grounds after picking up a knock in the 27-3 win against Scotland, he is almost certain to return for their third pool game on Thursday, against Russia in Kobe. Ireland will need 10 points from their final two games to make the quarter-finals, after ceding control of the pool to the host nation.
“I was just frustrated that I wasn't on the pitch and couldn't help the lads out,” Sexton said on Sunday evening at the team hotel. “Watching from the stand, there's not much you can do. You want to play every game, especially in a World Cup, but hopefully I can pay back the whole squad with a good performance this week and beyond.”
While Ireland picked an almost full-strength squad against Japan, with the entire pack that started the Scotland game retained, there was a view outside the camp that Sexton was being wrapped in cotton wool with the quarter-finals in mind.
“I picked up that strain against Scotland and I wasn't going to train Monday, Tuesday. The preparation time is so short in a six-day turnaround that the guys made a decision for me to sit this one out,” said Sexton, pictured scoring against Wales in the Six Nations in March.
Until Japan tore up the script and blew the pool wide open, it had seemed that Schmidt’s men were cruising towards a knockout match against South Africa. Now, they cannot afford a slip-up and the inquest into what went wrong in Shizuoka started unusually early.
Ordinarily one of the world’s most disciplined teams, Ireland coughed up nine penalties. Straight after the game Schmidt spoke of frustration in the Irish dressing room over the decision-making of Australian referee, Angus Gardner. Twenty-four hours later, Sexton adopted a somewhat different position.
“We looked at those penalties today and we've got to look at ourselves and say our discipline wasn't good enough," he said.
"There's a lot of access points we gave them and discipline would be top of the list. We had them under pressure a few times and we let them out.
“They played great on the day and you've got to give them a lot of credit as well.”
The Leinster captain said the team will take heart from the way they responded to poor performances before the World Cup, notably the heavy defeat by England at Twickenham in August.
“We turned it around and beat Wales back to back. They’re a very good team and we beat them. We started with a bang last week against Scotland – so yeah, if we can go on a bit of a run now, a five-game winning run would be great. That would do nicely.
"It's up to us now to put in two big performances and hopefully put ourselves into a quarter-final."
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