Joe Schmidt on why he kept faith in misfiring Murray and Sexton
It is every Ireland fan's worst nightmare.
Even during the good times, Ireland supporters fretted over Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. When the Springboks were beaten in Johannesburg, the All Blacks were bested in Chicago, the Grand Slam attained or the All Blacks (again) defeated on Irish soil.
We were good, but what about Sexton and Murray? Even when Kieran Marmion started wins over England, Argentina and New Zealand. Even when Joey Carbery's move to Munster seemed like a masterstroke.
It was Sexton and Murray. Murray and Sexton.
Now, our worst fears have been realised and the only consolation - if you can call it that - is that Ireland have six months to get it right again. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been under par all championship and Saturday in Cardiff was as bad as it gets.
Ever since Ireland finished round one of the Guinness Six Nations on '0' and England on '5' it has been a struggle. As hosts, in Dublin, Ireland started the championship as outstanding favourites but, from 86 second in, it has looked anything like that.
The review/post-mortem will be tough as so few have enjoyed commendable championships, but the glaring fact is that Murray and Sexton have been poor.
These are two world-class players so we are assessing their dip in form through that prism, but it has been alarming. Murray's passing has been luke-warm, recently, but it was stone-cold today. Sexton looks to be carrying an injury (hamstring) and is at about 70% of where he can be. As a result, Ireland are ponderous and indecisive.
Asked about Sexton's continuous griping, Joe Schmidt said, "He's been really positive through the week and he's building his way forward. He's been a lynchpin for us in so many positive wins."
'Building his way forward'. Four key words and a clear sign that Ireland have been left waiting for their No.10, and 2018 World Player of the Year, to click into gear.
Asked if he had considered taking his two main off earlier than 71 and 73 minutes, Schmidt said:
"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.
“That was part of the remit we decided we were going to prioritise in this Six Nations. Whether it bears fruit at the other end of this season, we’ll see.
“But I don’t get into prognostics, all I do is try to get into preparation. The best preparation for top-class players is to be in pressure-cooker situations and to work their way through them.
“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.
“They’ve had so many days in the team where they’ve been the hub upon which the wheel has turned and the wheel has generally gone forward. Over the last two years, we’ve played 26 Test and lost three of them.
“To lose today is really tough but those two guys are not the reason we lost. Those two guys, we’ll continue to invest in just as we have in Jack Carty and getting Kieran Marmion back – I thought he came on and did really well.
“John Cooney has acquitted himself well in the earlier part of the championship as well, so you just keep trying to grow people and keep trying to keep your confidence in them so they keep their confidence in themselves.”
Schmidt claimed Sexton and Murray were not the reason Ireland lost on Saturday at the Principality Stadium. He had a point, as few performed at the expected, high levels, but they certainly did not help a flailing cause.
The only sliver of optimism here is that these failings have been exposed in March 2019 as opposed to September or October and right in the middle of a World Cup.