Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Schmidt era will live or die by Sexton and Murray form'

There are worse places to celebrate your 50th anniversary than the ‘Eternal City’, even when you know that nothing in professional sport lasts forever.

If, as expected, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are handed the No 9 and 10 jerseys for Ireland’s trip to the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday, they will start together for the 50th time in green.

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Joe Schmidt has managed quite a lot of change during his time in charge; transitioning out of the Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll era with a minimum of fuss.

Amidst the evolution, the rock-solid, world-class half-back partnership has remained a comforting constant – a source of huge strength in a formidable and successful team.

Their numbers put them in elite territory.

Barring injury, they will surpass Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara’s Irish record of 53 starts together at some stage this year and while they remain a fair bit off George Gregan and Stephen Larkham’s incredible 78 caps playing in tandem, they will go down as one of the great partnerships.

For all of the need to increase depth in specialist positions in a World Cup year, Ireland know they will need their main men to succeed in Japan.

Yes, they beat the All Blacks and England without Murray, while they coped when Sexton went off against Scotland earlier this month, but for a sustained assault on the best teams in the world in Japan, the two men need to be fit and firing.

It all began in New Plymouth against the United States at the 2011 World Cup and for a while there were doubts about the duo’s ability to play together; but time soon healed any issues and now they go together hand in glove.

With Sexton now 33 and Murray 29, they are two of the most experienced players in the squad – Test Lions whose abilities are respected worldwide and whose achievements will stand the test of time.

It is no wonder that Schmidt goes back to them time and time again.

The coach has steadily invested in his squad since the 2015 World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina, but he has been reluctant to rotate his two key decision-makers behind the scrum.

Sexton sat on the bench for an hour of the opening Test defeat to Australia last summer, but otherwise it has taken injuries to remove either man from the equation.

Even with this Six Nations title almost certainly beyond the champions, there is a reluctance to break up the partnership.

An away trip to Rome might have seemed to most like an obvious place to infuse Joey Carbery or John Cooney with Test-match experience, but instead the priority is to have the main men fit and firing as Ireland target a big finish to propel them towards Japan.

With three Six Nations titles already to his name, Schmidt does not appear to be overly concerned with the trophy’s destination on March 16; but he is aware of the potential for a loss of momentum.

Murray’s form is a worry and there is a sense within the coaching staff that the scrum-half, who missed the first three months of the season with a neck injury, needs to play his way back to his best.

And Sexton has only played 103 minutes since coming off at half-time of the December 29 derby against Munster at Thomond Park.

Both players were under-cooked for the England game and Ireland suffered as a result. It wasn’t the direct cause of the opening-day humbling but it certainly didn’t help.

So, they will be asked to go again in Rome and some will cry foul of an opportunity to invest in the squad being lost.

There is a risk in relying on the top two and Schmidt knows all about it.

He lived every moment of that cataclysmic week in Cardiff when, one by one, his frontline players were ruled out of the quarter-final.

The coach has invested heavily in the panel but like all teams he has a small group of leading men who he turns to time and time again.

On Wednesday, skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy outlined the management’s confidence in the squad, their belief that they have invested enough time in the next man in to absorb any loss.


But every team needs their world-class players to perform on the big days and, like it or not, the next men in at half-back are not yet at the level of the men who have played together 49 times.

Their shared experience counts for so much and allows them to concentrate on their own games without worrying about the other man.

It is at once a source of strength and a potential weakness; one that could bring the whole thing crashing down if injury strikes in Japan.

Schmidt’s legacy will be defined by what happens at the World Cup – having another crack at the tournament was one of the primary drivers of his decision to remain in this country for another couple of years.

Success there is wrapped up in the form and fitness of his soon-to-be half-centurions.

You could invest your hopes in worse.

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