No pointing of fingers at Johnny Sexton for that miss against New Zealand, it’s just the curse of being a number 10
In many ways the kicker is the bravest guy on a team, he has no place to hide
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton during the match against New Zealand. You put yourself out where there’s no hiding place. Make the kick and the team are heroes. Miss it and people talk about you for years. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
When it was all over on Sunday, your thoughts had to go to Johnny Sexton. It was harsh but it was unavoidable. Everybody could see that if he had kicked that late penalty to put Ireland two scores ahead, there’s no way the All Blacks would have pulled it out of the fire. Richie McCaw even said so afterwards.
This is the curse of being a number 10. Johnny had a really good game otherwise but when people talk about it in years to come, his kick is what they’ll automatically mention. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t even the losing of the game – Ireland had plenty of the ball in the last five minutes as they tried to close out the win. But there’s no getting away from it, that kick would have won it.
Something like that will happen a few times a season to any team. It won’t always be a kicker with a bad miss – it could be a sin-binning or a penalty given away at a crucial time in a game. That’s what it was in my case a few times anyway. How teams deal with it will always tell you a lot about the individual involved and the squad as a whole.
In Sexton’s case, nobody would have got stuck into him in the Ireland dressing room. Nobody would have given out to him or even made a snide remark. That only happens if your team is in a really bad place or if the player himself is either unpopular or has been consistently missing kicks. Or if he was blasé about it and didn’t look like it was a big deal to him. But none of that applies to Sexton and the Ireland team.
To be honest, it’s very rare that you’d be in a dressingroom where somebody has missed kicks and they’re getting hammered for it. It’s part and parcel of the game. That responsibility falls on one guy and even though it’s in the back of your head, you’re no sort of team-mate if you start pointing fingers.
It would have been the opposite to that on Sunday. People would have been consoling him and giving him sympathy. Johnny is someone who’d be known as being quite tough on himself so everybody knew that however bad they were feeling, he’d have felt worse. There’d have been no anger towards him.
For the individual himself, it’s a horrible situation. If you’re involved in something that was the winning or losing of the game, the sense of responsibility is huge. The great thing about team sport is the support structure you have and the amount of people who are willing to back you up and try to make you feel better.
But inside, you’re churning. You can’t help it. You know that in the same situation, you’d be going over to and trying to gee the fella up but you can’t bring yourself to see the bright side. Not immediately anyway.
It always took me a long time to get over individual disappointments. I know they were different circumstances than a kicker missing a vital chance but the feeling is similar. You know in your heart and soul that any game is made up of more than just one incident but that doesn’t make it any better. It was your mistake and you’re the one that will carry it the longest.
People will tiptoe around you a bit. Your friends and family will talk about anything but the incident. It becomes the great unspeakable. But people will see it in your face and will know by your demeanour.
That side of it is worse when it’s a team sport. If you’re a golfer or a tennis player or a snooker player and you’ve missed the key shot, your despair will all be about yourself. So although people will probably still tiptoe around the subject with you, it isn’t as bad.
Firstly, there aren’t as many people so it isn’t as magnified – there’s nothing worse than a big group of people all being careful not to say the same thing. And secondly, you know that it’s something only you will have to live with. In a team environment, it’s that feeling of looking around and seeing the heartbreak in everyone else’s eyes that’s the real killer.
And look, that’s really unfair. It’s reality but it’s an unfair reality. In many ways, the kicker is the bravest guy on a rugby team. He’s the one who always puts his hand up to take the responsibility. He knows that if it doesn’t go his way it usually doesn’t go the team’s way. More often than not it will it is the kicker who is singled out when a tight game is lost. That’s an awful lot to take upon yourself.
Apart from the mental toll, on a practical level it means far more hours of training than it does for the rest of the players. I was always in the car and gone home or on the bus and gone back to the hotel long before Ronan O’Gara finished his day’s work. Same with Johnny.
Same with every kicker. When everyone else has a day off, they will spend some of it kicking. They spend hours upon hours getting their technique right and getting their head right.
And when it goes wrong, it stays with them in a way that other mistakes don’t stay with other players. Rog’s latest book has a page where he refers to Northampton in 2000 and New Zealand in 2002 – games that are 13 and 11 years old but people still refer to them. Totally unfair but still reality.
O’Gara got over them and we were able to slag him about costing us a Heineken Cup eventually. He was able to do it because he had a strong personality. In that situation, you’ve just got to keep going. You’ve got to be able to realise that you’re going to have misses in your career and that it doesn’t mean you should doubt yourself.
Sexton has come through a few kicking troubles in his career so he knows how this goes. He has to be mentally strong. He has to accept it for what it is. He can’t get bogged down in disappointment but instead he has to use it to make him stronger and learn from it.
On a technical level, he will definitely look at what made him stand over the ball for so long. If you go back through his kicks against Australia and New Zealand, almost all of them took between 34 and 37 seconds from the point where he stood up from placing the ball and the point where he kicked it. The penalty before half-time on Sunday took 39 seconds. The one he missed took 45.
We don’t know if he got distracted. We don’t know if he froze. We don’t know if it was because he was fatigued coming near the end of the game – a game that he had gone into carrying a hamstring. We don’t know anything other than for some reason he took longer over it than the others. Only Johnny knows if it mattered one way or the other. He still looked like he connected fairly well – the ball didn’t look like it had been mishit. And yet it went wide.
But that’s often the case. Sometimes they just don’t go over. It was the case with O’Gara against Northampton, it was the case with David Humphreys’s drop goal against Australia in the 2003 World Cup. Even with a good strike, nothing is guaranteed. That’s why it’s such a cruel game.
It’s just human nature that people remember the misses. Kickers win you games that are never mentioned again and any kicker I’ve met knows that it’s just part of the gig. The margins are small and kicking is the one area of the game where everything slows down and you get time to think about it. You put yourself out there where there’s no hiding place.
In the end, it comes down to a packed stadium and the chance to make history. And again, that is where the unfairness of it all comes into play. Make the kick and the team are heroes. Miss it and people talk about you for years.
Imagine how Aaron Cruden would have been remembered in New Zealand if he hadn’t got a second bite at that conversion on Sunday. He would have been the guy who had a chance to give the All Blacks a perfect season but blew it. Instead, history will talk about the great All Blacks team of 2013. It won’t necessarily talk about Aaron Cruden.
I was a big Liverpool fan as a kid and I remember watching them play Wimbledon in the 1988 FA Cup final. I can hardly remember another John Aldridge penalty from his whole career but I can picture the one he missed in that game. There were 10 other Liverpool players playing that day and they can’t have played well if Wimbledon beat them. But can you name a Liverpool player who had a stinker? You’d want to be a die-hard if you can. For most people, Aldridge carried the can.
That’s the line that every kicker has to walk. Johnny Sexton will recover from this because he’s a strong character. He knows he’s in a position where he can be a hero or a villain. It’s tough but that’s the job he signed up for.