Sexton dilemma central to Irish frustrations

11:05 PM GMT

CARDIFF, Wales — Redemption was sweet for Wales as they delivered an energy-sapping victory in an enthralling, exhilarating contest against Ireland in Cardiff.

Wales coach Rob Howley had asked for passion before the game, and he got exactly that from the moment the Principality Stadium crowd bellowed out the national anthem right up until the 23 men decked in red embarked on a deserved lap of honour. It was a far cry from the humbling defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield last time out in the Six Nations.

Ireland had played their part, and will feel that the 22-9 scoreline flattered their hosts, but as referee Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle, all the questions were reserved for Joe Schmidt, the Ireland coach. And not only because they had missed the chance to set up a Six Nations title showdown with England in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day weekend — only Scotland can now stop England securing a second successive championship.

No, the main question facing Schmidt as he prepares for England’s visit to Ireland surrounds the fitness and deployment of his playmaker Jonathan Sexton.

Sexton, for good and ill, was central to so much in this match. In a moment to make Irish eyes water, Sexton went in to tackle Jonathan Davies in the first half, and the fly-half’s head collided with the rampaging centre’s knee.

Sexton’s brief departure for a Head Injury Assessment – something he is sadly all too familiar with — marked the denouement of a bruising opening quarter for the Leinster playmaker, in which he had played a pivotal role in Ireland’s plan to disrupt his opposite number, Dan Biggar.

As an experiment it worked perfectly. Ireland’s line speed was electric in the first 40 minutes in Cardiff, picking when to commit to the ruck and when not to in order to allow their fly-half to crowd Wales’ supply line.

Ireland picked off two interceptions, and could have had another, and Sexton repeatedly got in the face of Biggar, who as a rule likes to play exceedingly flat.

An unfortunate by-product of the tactic, though, was that Schmidt’s most important attacking weapon had been put in the firing line early on. Sexton made six tackles in that opening quarter alone.

Ireland’s fly-half passed the HIA, only to depart to the sin bin before half time for deliberately killing the ball on his own line. Wales kicked a simple three points then, and capitalised further while Sexton was still in the bin as George North scored his second try of the game early in the second half.

Sexton is such a wonderful player that you are never going to bring him off voluntarily. Paddy Jackson has had a fine tournament so far, standing in manfully in the opening two games against Scotland and Italy while Sexton nursed a thigh injury. But the Irish attack hums a different tune when their first-choice No.10 is on the pitch and in form.

Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray look dejected after Ireland’s loss to Wales.¬†Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

He showed as much in the second half here in Cardiff, as he produced his full repertoire of passes, chips and kicks to try and pick holes in the Welsh defence. They can backfire as well, though, as his charged-down clearance for Jamie Roberts’ game-clinching score proved.

Sexton is also a willing defender, borne out by the relish with which he leapt into his defensive duties in the first half. But he is also a man with a long injury history.

Schmidt must decide exactly how much — and where — to use his fly-half, because alongside half-back partner Conor Murray, he is the person who makes this side tick.

Could Ireland try to hide him in certain situations against England, like Eddie Jones does George Ford? That would seem to go against Sexton’s all-action style, but if Ireland could make use of his attacking talents while shielding him, would that not be beneficial to his health, both in the short and long term?

Murray, for his part, was another casualty of Ireland’s first-half defensive effort, in which they made 81 tackles before the break.

The scrum-half stayed on for 16 minutes after he had initially gone down clutching his wrist, and his head, having tried to tackle North.

Murray was clearly wounded, his left arm hanging low by his side, and it was he who was dragged into touch for the lineout that led to North’s second try.

It is a sign of how much Schmidt’s side rely on their halfbacks that both he and Sexton remained on for so long.

England know that only too well, and Jones can expect to be asked about Sexton’s fitness ahead of next week’s Six Nations finale. Last year, Jones infamously said Sexton’s parents would be worried about him when he faced the English, so heavy was the punishment going to be.

He would do well to be more circumspect in his answers this time around, but it is a dilemma that is sure to dominate Schmidt’s thoughts enough as it is.

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