Having now asserted himself as Leinster’s first choice outhalf, Jonathon Sexton should be looking towards the Autumn Internationals, writes Daniel Keenan
As Ireland prepare to face Australia, Fiji and South Africa next month, Leinster outhalf Jonathan Sexton is almost certain to be named as reserve to Ronan O’Gara. It is an exciting prospect that Ireland once again has some competition for the number 10 jersey, with Sexton a serious candidate to take O’Gara’s seemingly untouchable pace in the team.
Sexton has found his niche at Leinster, having made a strong start to the season and being one of Leinster’s most consistent players so far. His kicking from hand has dramatically improved, even in poor conditions, like that at the RDS against Munster this month.
Sexton’s rapid progress in the areas where O’Gara is left wanting is part of the reason he is pressuring the Lions’ outhalf for the number 10 jersey. His tackling is certainly better than O’Gara’s, who has always had a reputation – and rightly so – as being more of a turnstile than a brick wall when it comes to stopping a player.
Sexton has taken on a more attacking role at Leinster, often running at players and exploiting gaps when he can. Though far from the Matt Giteaus and Dan Carters of this world, the 24-year-old’s runs are intelligent, and add another dimension to his play. Attacking runs are something O’Gara rarely exploits, and this probably won’t change as he pushes into his thirties.
Even when it comes to place kicking, the area where O’Gara has received countless plaudits, Sexton is taking centre stage – though with O’Gara being the highest scorer in Six Nations history, and the sixth-highest scorer of test points in history, he cannot be denied as an immense goal kicker. The fact is, however, that O’Gara missed more kicks against Treviso in the Heineken Cup the weekend before last than Sexton has missed for the entire season to date. As was seen against Treviso and versus England at Croke Park last season, when O’Gara has a bad day, he has a really bad day.
There is no doubt as to who is in better form at the moment, but form isn’t everything. O’Gara has the experience of 92 caps under his belt, and has faced the likes of Australia and South Africa. It’s plain to see that Sexton has rapidly matured in the last few months, but can a man who was a sub for all but the final of Ireland A’s Churchill Cup campaign face the might of the World Champions?
O’Gara has been one of Ireland’s best players over the last few years, while Sexton, until six months ago, was given the dreaded label of a “confidence player”. On form, he deserves to start for all three internationals, but would that really be fair to him? The step up from club to international rugby is huge, and to start him against two of the powerhouses of world rugby would be dangerous for Ireland, and for Sexton’s confidence. We can only confidently expect him to start against Fiji, and to be brought on for the Australia and South Africa games. Time will tell if the pupil can outshine the master once given his chance.