Johnny Sexton’s ability to predict what happens next on the pitch has ensured the World Player of the Year is peerless, according to teammate Chris Farrell.
The Leinster fly-half remains the talisman on whom Ireland hang their World Cup ambitions, with boss Joe Schmidt confident the 34-year-old will be fully fit for the Pool A finale against Samoa.
Understudies Jack Carty and Joey Carbery provide plenty of skill and panache at the backline’s pivot, but none in green can rival Sexton at his spiky, demanding and ruthless peak.
Munster centre Farrell said Sexton takes visualisation to the next level.
“Johnny sees things unfolding before they happen; and that just comes from his experience, because he’s seen so many things on a rugby field,” Farrell said.
“We talk about doing work in the ‘mind gym’ to see things before they happen, or as early as possible as they unfold because we’ve seen it in our heads before.
“He’s played so much rugby of such a high standard that he’s naturally seen a lot of things happen, and he’s able to see things earlier.”
Sexton captained Ireland for the first time in Thursday’s patchy 35-0 win over Russia where Schmidt’s men sealed the bonus-point victory but precious little else.
The British and Irish Lions star laid on two tries before being withdrawn at half-time to sit on the bench and ice his troublesome thigh after the interval.
Ireland’s reliance on Sexton has never been greater, but regular skipper Rory Best has always allowed the fiercely competitive playmaker the stage to make his points and lead the team in his areas of expertise.
Best, Sexton and company must still strike back from their damaging shock 19-12 loss to Japan by beating Samoa to secure a quarter-final berth.
That defeat by the tournament hosts leaves Ireland vulnerable to a last-eight clash with back-to-back world champions New Zealand.
While Sexton might be able to forecast events on the field, neither he nor his team-mates are in any mood to look ahead to knockout rugby.
But the 26-year-old Farrell still believes Sexton can command top billing at this World Cup.
“He’s so exciting to play with because he gives you space and time on the ball,” said Farrell.
“He’s so consistent in what he does that you really know what you’re getting from him every single time. He’s a real leader and he’s shown that again on Thursday.
“You know just during the week all the micro chats he’ll be having, and not just with the same players over and over again, he goes and seeks players out.
“He gets what he wants out of them. He has so much experience and knowledge of the game that you have to take on board whatever he says.
“When you reflect on what he says you sometimes end up looking back at the video and realising he’s dead right.
“He’s so accurate in what he says to you. And he can make you a better player just by you talking to him.”
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Ireland subdued Russia 35-0 for a bonus-point win in Kobe but were left to sweat on new World Cup injury problems for Johnny Sexton, Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery.
Sexton captained Ireland for the first time in Thursday’s Pool A clash but was removed at half-time and was icing his thigh on the bench after the break.
The versatile Carbery was due to cover scrum-half from the bench but never even made it that far, having picked up a possible recurrence of the ankle injury that almost kept him out of the tournament.
Flanker Murphy also suffered a suspected rib problem on a night that could end up taking a heavy toll on Ireland’s entire World Cup bid, even if the victory was much welcomed after their shock defeat to Japan.
Rob Kearney, Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Andrew Conway and Garry Ringrose scored tries for Joe Schmidt’s men to secure a victory that puts them back on course for the quarter-finals.
Defeat Samoa in Fukuoka on Saturday, October 12 and Ireland will make the last eight – but their performance levels will have to ramp up considerably to see off either South Africa or New Zealand.
British and Irish Lions star Sexton missed Ireland’s 19-12 loss to hosts Japan with a thigh complaint, but had declared himself 100 per cent fit for Thursday’s encounter.
Carbery, meanwhile, damaged ankle ligaments in the 29-10 warm-up victory over Italy in Dublin on August 10, and had to fight tooth and nail to make the World Cup in the first place.
The 23-year-old came off the bench against Japan but looked tentative, and now Ireland will hope his new ankle issue is not lasting.
The luckless Murphy lasted just 26 minutes of his first World Cup outing, only days after replacing the injured Jack Conan in the Ireland ranks.
Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell would likely be the next back-row cab off the rank if Murphy’s injury were to prove serious enough to cut short his World Cup exploits.
Ireland could, of course, turn to lock Devin Toner and utilise Tadhg Beirne as an outright flanker.
Toner was Ireland’s shock World Cup squad omission, with boss Schmidt selecting Munster’s Jean Kleyn instead.
But the hugely-dependable Leinster star would offer Ireland great lineout stability should he be called upon.
Tournament regulations dictate that any stadium roof must be closed, but this has backfired amid the extreme humidity at the Kobe Misaki.
In all the matches played here so far, the ball remains the slickest thing on display, with condensation hanging in the air and sweat pouring off the players.
The unavoidable handling errors have ruined the spectacles, with even the purists lamenting a clutch of contests spoiled by the unnaturally intensified elements.
Ireland were the latest team to suffer, but even accounting for the atmosphere this win still contained too many mistakes.
Kearney raced in for Ireland’s quickest-ever World Cup try, haring home after just 90 seconds.
Such a facile score harboured clear portents of a whitewash, but Ireland’s biggest opponent proved their error count.
In extreme humidity the slippery ball proved enough of a challenge, but Schmidt’s men still struggled for cohesion in other areas too.
"We're delighted to get a good win and get back on the horse after last week..."@IrishRugby captain Johnny Sexton speaks after his side got their second win at #RWC2019 against Russia #IREvRUS pic.twitter.com/RH8bG7qYAb— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 3, 2019
Kearney found himself in no man’s land as he let a high ball bounce, a collector’s item given his long-running assurance at the back for Ireland.
Russia were unable to capitalise though, and Sexton’s cute grubber caught the Bears flat footed to send O’Mahony in for try number two.
And when Russia lock Bogdan Fedotko was sin-binned Ireland quickly capitalised on the numerical advantage for flanker Ruddock to bash over the line. Sexton’s third conversion handed Ireland a 21-0 lead at half-time.
Boss Schmidt withdrew Sexton at the break, opting to bubble wrap his premier playmaker, especially in light of that injury issue for Carbery.
Russia forward Andrei Ostrikov was yellow carded for shoulder charging a ruck just moments after joining the fray off the bench in the second half.
Ireland punted the penalty to the corner and set about building into phase play from a sharp lineout – only to knock on cheaply again in midfield.
Finally Conway hared home for the bonus-point try, and then Ringrose glossed the scoreboard. But even though this was job done, Ireland will be left to fret about the cost.
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England will enter their crucial World Cup clash with Argentina boosted by the return of Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell from the bench.
Vunipola and Nowell missed the Pool C victories over Tonga and USA because of respective hamstring and ankle injuries but have been passed fit for the first major test of the group phase.
The starting XV shows only one change to the side that secured a bonus point in the Sapporo opener with George Kruis replacing Courtney Lawes in the second row.
Kruis is England’s best line-out technician and he partners Saracens team-mate Maro Itoje at lock with Lawes dropping to the bench to supply engine room cover.
Vunipola has played just 17 minutes of rugby since May 11 after his comeback against Ireland during the warm-up Tests was aborted when he damaged the scar tissue on his hamstring.
Joe Marler continues at prop with Vunipola, the sport’s foremost loosehead, set to make his return as a second-half replacement at Tokyo Stadium.
Nowell has not played since his blockbusting performance for Exeter in last season’s Gallagher Premiership final but is present on the bench where he will be unleashed as a hard-running impact substitute.
After the pool’s two weakest teams were swatted aside, Eddie Jones has picked his strongest available side with playmakers George Ford and Owen Farrell fielded in tandem inside Manu Tuilagi.
Tuilagi was a marauding presence against Tonga, scoring two tries in a player of the match performance, but was rested for the USA clash.
Jones has opted for the openside flanker combination of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, the duo he dubbed ‘Kamikaze Kids’, in the back row with Lewis Ludlam deputising on the bench.
England are guaranteed passage into the quarter-final if they topple Argentina seven days before they lock horns with Six Nations rivals France.
“Argentina is a completely different team from others we have played so far in the pool stages and are always about the physical contest,” Jones said.
“This week it’s about getting our game right, our set piece in a good place and making sure defensively we are organised and ready to find ways to score points against them.”
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