On a dog of a night, Sexton had a 100 per cent kicking record, including two beauties from either corner and showed tremendous kicking power from open play and a willingness to run at the opposition’s defence and make something happen.
He probably won’t start against South Africa on Saturday, but Sexton is now knocking firmly on the door ahead of the Six Nations campaign. A wonderful debut.
2 – Keith Earls is a great finisher: Though one suspects his long-term future is in midfield, contrary to some opinion, Keith Earls is one hell of a replacement for Luke Fitzgerald, who will play no part in the Championship due to injury.
Earls’ handling skills were spot on last Saturday and he did exactly what was asked of him from the off. He will improve in the physicality stakes in time, which suggests his future should see him involved in the thick of things for Ireland a few campaigns from now.
3 – Tom Court deserves his shot: With huge doubt surrounding Marcus Horan’s availability for the Championship, the question of who replaces him appears easily resolved following Cian Healy’s stunning debut against the Wallabies.
But it was good to see Ulster’s Tom Court being given a shot to prove himself last weekend and after a difficult start, he powered into proceedings and had a fine match. Healy looks the better bet to start come the Spring, but Court didn’t do himself any harm at all at the RDS and scrummaged particularly well in the second half.
4 – Tony Buckley can make an impact: The 21-stone Munster powerhouse is known for his powerful bursts, but he has rarely proven more explosive than he did last Saturday during a barnstorming contribution. Four turnovers and a pick-up that a back half his size would have proud of during the final quarter of the game, ‘Mushy’ has got to start channelling his undoubted ability into an 80-minute display. John Hayes, as much as we love him, can’t last forever.
5 – O’Callaghan still O’Connell’s best partner: While the clamour for Bob Casey is justified, Donncha O’Callaghan, on the basis of games played with Paul O’Connell, remains the best second row colleague for ‘POC’. Yes, O’Callaghan hasn’t had the greatest of starts to the season, but most of his colleague’s best displays are produced by virtue of O’Callaghan’s excellence in the ‘mucky stuff’ department.
Leo Cullen didn’t stand out enough to make Kidney consider a change at second row for the Springboks – so you can’t imagine Butch without Sundance.
6 – Do we have a problem at scrum-half? Dirty day and all taken into account, Eoin Reddan didn’t move the ball enough to leave Kidney facing a major selection headache at number nine, unlike the one he genuinely has at 10.
Ironically, the first time Reddan produced a creative play off the back of the scrum, he was immediately taken off afterwards.
Tomas O’Leary hasn’t yet caught fire like so many Irish players this season, but he appears to be in Kidney’s favour currently. However, don’t rule Peter Stringer or Isaac Boss completely out of the picture come the spring.
7 – Stephen Ferris is a legend in the making: Had he not been injured in South Africa, the Lions would have made history, of that I have no doubt. Stephen Ferris is a force of nature – a magnificent tackler, a marvellous lineout option, first class at the breakdown and fringes and superb in open play. He’s almost the complete back row player already and we’re blessed to have a player of his ability.
He could well be Ireland’s matchwinner at Croke Park.
8 – Tommy Bowe edging out Shane Horgan: While it was great to see ‘Shaggy’ back in the green last Saturday, Tommy Bowe remains the top dog on the right flank. That both of his right wings have scored over the past two weekends will please Kidney, the son of the Bilberry man will return to starting action against the world champions, especially on the back of an excellent Lions tour. But the competition for the 14 shirt has intensified and that can only be a good thing.
9 – South Africa are stumbling: They’ve lost to Leicester, France and Saracens to date on their tour and hardly set the world on fire when beating Italy last weekend, but they’re not World and Tri Nations champions for nothing. Their ponderous ability in moving the ball out of midfield is likely to play into Irish hands, and should we (a) disrupt their back row, (b) protect our half-backs and (c) get quick ball to our backs, then the win is on. But the champs are no mugs, and if they have to bore their way to victory, they won’t care.
10 – Our coach remains in complete control: Declan Kidney remains on cloud nine, with his team just 80 minutes away from an undefeated 2009. He hasn’t been too radical in his team selections, but nonetheless we’ve had four new caps added to the squad over the past two weeks and it’s a long time since that occurred in an Irish rugby fortnight. Only France look capable of mounting a genuine challenge to Ireland come the Six Nations and a victory over a side already felled by ‘Les Bleus’ will show we mean business. Ireland to win – just!