The problem for Johnny Sexton is that he exists in twilight just now. Too special to leave on the sidelines yet too callow to expect miracles. Two years ago Danny Cipriani waltzed through this fixture as though he was humming a happy tune in his head for the afternoon but he lives his rugby life now as the ultimate cautionary tale. Would you want the same for Sexton?
It hardly needs to be an either/or of course, but still you get the sense that it's no harm that Sexton was just another player on the pitch yesterday. Take an average of the newspaper ratings today and tomorrow and chances are he'll wash out at somewhere around a seven. Last pass for the first two Irish tries but a patchy kicking day. Not the best player on the pitch, nowhere in the vicinity of worst either.
You suspect Declan Kidney wouldn't have it any other way. If the stated aim is to have Sexton and Ronan O'Gara hokey-cokeying for the jersey between now and the World Cup, it wouldn't do for Sexton to be siphoning off all the mystery from the situation just yet. Better to leave some wiggle room for O'Gara to arm-wrestle over. Competition between the pair will rise the tide and float the boats.
The game was only three minutes old when he made his first splash yesterday. When Paul O'Connell turned Jonny Wilkinson over around midfield, the ball was recycled and Tomás O'Leary sent Jamie Heaslip cantering away. The initial impression was that Heaslip was holding on to the ball far too long but a combination of his calm and Sexton's clever running made the chance. Heaslip kept the England defence guessing as they back peddled and once he released to Sexton, the Leinster out-half dodged around Lewis Moody with a fluid step.
Everything happened in a trice, itself a tribute to the speed of Sexton's brain. Ireland had committed enough of England's defence with Heaslip's delayed pass that Sexton's shimmy put him in a cupboard's-worth of space. He had the amount of time it took to drop the ball to his toe to get his kick away – Riki?Flutey was tomahawking towards him even as he did so. But the kick was perfect and Tommy Bowe easily beat Moody to the touchdown.
The perfect start, then. Much of the rest of Sexton's work was with the boot too. The kick was his first instinct just about every time the Gilbert came his way. Sometimes he kicked too far, a couple of times he found touch on the full. Venial sins that a tight game made look more serious than they were. He was made take a couple of kicks at goal from angles that would have sent Pythagoras to bed with a headache – missing was no disgrace.
His influence on the game was patchy through the second half right up until he popped into the line for Keith Earl's try on 56 minutes. The judgement on Danny Care was harsh when the touch judge reversed a penalty but Sexton made the most of the piece of luck.
First, his kick to the corner was almost literally to the corner and it set up an Irish line-out on the five-metre line. And then he cruised into the line to spear a killer pass to Earls and put him over in the corner. Earls had plenty to do in the dive for the line but it was the angle and speed of Sexton's pass that set him free. That Sexton missed with the touchline conversion seemed inevitable given his form from out wide all day. Again, no disgrace. And yet, zero from three is something to work on.
With 11 minutes to go,?O'Gara came on and sent Sexton to the bench. His first act was to send a spiral to the corner that hardly needs description here because you've seen him do it every game for a decade. It pushed England back into their 22, from where Ireland harried their lineout and from which Bowe eventually scored the winning try.
The kind of one-two punch Kidney dreams of perfecting over the next 18 months.