Jonny Sexton plays with an edge to his game. He let Rougerie know all about it after his first tackle of the French match and famously shared his feelings with Ronan O’Gara in Croke Park. He has at times looked uneasy and even sullen in an Irish jersey this season but allowed himself a satisfied grin after knocking over his fourth kick against Scotland.
With his partnership with Eoin Reddan re-established, Sexton looked more comfortable with the higher tempo of the game. However, it was his sweetly struck penalty with Ronan O’Gara on the pitch that had Sexton smiling. O’Gara was captain at the stage when the penalty was awarded on the left of the pitch and it seemed as though muscle memory and the habit of a career had him trotting across to take the kick. Philip Matthews on the BBC certainly expected O’Gara to go for the posts. We don’t know what was said between them but Sexton took the kick, nailed it and went back to play first centre as Ireland’s undisputed first choice number 10.
None of the holy trinity of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara started against Scotland and it struck me that the baton has been passed from the ‘Golden Generation’ to…whatever comes after that. I never liked the phrase, it’s odious. It suggests that Ireland’s upswing in fortunes is due to good fortune and is temporary rather than something that can be consistently maintained.
Only four players remain from the team that started against France in RWC 2007 – Andrew Trimble, Eoin Reddan, Gordon D’Arcy and Donncha O’Callaghan. Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll look set to return but Ireland’s fortunes are now in the hands of Sexton, Ferris, Kearney, Heaslip and Earls, none of whom were involved in the 2007 World Cup games, although Ferris travelled as one of our army of sixes.
Earls had his best game for Ireland on Saturday and looks increasingly comfortable at second centre. His defence has been solid but it is his attacking that has impressed. Earls’ straight running and the timing of his passes betrays high quality basics that will fuel his confidence. His running style is reminiscent of Christian Cullen and if he gets on the shoulders of breaks he could redeem himself against Manu Tuilagi next week.
If there is a showcase nation for a generational shift, it is Scotland. Scotland won the Grand Slam in 1984 and again in 1990. Taking the core of each team as being composed of 25-29 year olds and looking at the birth rate in the corresponding years, we can see that there was an average of 96,912 births in the years 1955-1959 (’84 Grand Slam) and 102,642 in 1961-1965 (’90 Grand Slam). The current crop comes from years with an average birth rate of 65,783. Scotland now have two people to become international rugby players where they used have three. It’s going to be difficult to reverse their decline in fortunes.