Ireland are lost without Johnny Sexton
"He'll be pretty well perfect for whatever is after."
Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. We all knew it would come down to this.
Irish rugby fans always hoped, through Murray's concerning neck injury lay-off and an underwhelming Six Nations, that the country's top half back pairing would click at the World Cup and all would be rosy again.
After Ireland slumped against England and Wales in the Six Nations, Schmidt explained why he had, respectively, kept Sexton and Murray on, in Cardiff, for 71 and 73 minutes. He replied:
"We’re trying to build those two guys forward. They haven’t had a huge amount of game time so I think it’s important to invest in people... If, every time that isn’t going well, you take them off, I don’t think you’re growing them back to where they need to be."
The final World Cup warm-up games, against Wales again, hinted that better times could follow in Japan.
Against Scotland, in the World Cup opener, Murray had his best game in the green while Sexton looked good for 57 minutes, too. Schmidt withdrew both men after 57 minutes with the try-scoring bonus point already in the bag.
Jack Carty was cover for Sexton and showed some nice flashes that ensured no-one missed Joey Carbery (pictured below) too much. And then Sexton missed the Japan game. Schmidt has long insisted he would start players who were not 100% when they were well and truly required.
He claimed Sexton was not a major fitness concern and then rested him entirely. Carty had 25 good minutes - like most of his teammate - before Japan seized control and caused a shock.
Carbery looked handy enough when he came on as a second half sub but it was surprising not to see him start against Russia. It was even more surprising to see him named on the Irish bench as scrumhalf cover.
Ireland skills coach Richie Murphy tried to convince us that this was all part of the plan - despite Carbery being either injured or in rehab for six weeks from early August. Spin aside, most of us were still asking why our second best outhalf was not wearing the 10 (or 15) jersey against Russia.
As it turned out, Carbery 'jarred his heel' in the Kobe Misaki Stadium turf during the captain's run, Schmidt told RTE, and was pulled from the matchday squad. Spinning again, Schmidt claimed that 'Conor Murray was keen to play' so he was drafted onto the bench as was the only Irish player stripped out who did not play a single minute.
At least we had Sexton. All 40 minutes of him.
With Sexton pulling the strings, Ireland looked several classes above a game Russian side. His passing was slick, he was kicking excellently out of hand and he was calling the shots. In defence, he was sticking big tackles and he was also goal-kicking, landing three conversions out of three.
His confrontational, nay grumpy, tone to match referee Jerome Garces did his side no favours but, as outhalf, he did all that could be asked of him. Ireland were 21-0 up at the break and one more try shy of the bonus point.
Schmidt then opted to remove Sexton from the fray and the switch did not pay off. For 20 minutes, it all went to shit.
Jack Carty looked shaky in his initial involvements and twice coughed the ball back to the Russians, who were growing more and more confident of their ability to mix it and disrupt.
We all know that Sexton is being protected, and that - despite his protests - he is not yet close to 100% but 10 more minutes from Ireland's chief orchestrator would have killed off the Russians with more than 30 minutes to go.
Instead, with Sexton watching on, Ireland put in their worst 20 minutes of the tournament and it took a smart Carty chip, a Keith Earls chase and pass Andrew Conway finally sealed that extra point that should ensure that even a narrow victory over Samoa will be enough to reach the last eight.
After his side's 35-0 victory, Schmidt's comments confirmed that Sexton is still a fitness concern.
"The plan was always to give him 40 minutes this week and 60 minutes next, and he'll be pretty well perfect for whatever is after."
With Carbery still troubled by his ankle and Carty not yet convincing he can run a Test pack and backline for at least an hour, we have no option but to go with Schmidt's plan and hope for the best.
One thing is for sure, though. Ireland look lost without Sexton.
WATCH HIGHLIGHTS OF IRELAND'S 35-0 WIN OVER RUSSIA: