Johnny Sexton keen to keep the foot down for Ireland’s next game with Tonga

Rugby World Cup: Outhalf was excellent in the 65 minutes he played in the opening win over Romania

The Ireland squad have returned to their base in Tours, where the weather is set to break with cooler temperatures and some rain, in good spirits and good health but fully aware that tougher assignments lie in wait at this Rugby World Cup.

They relocate to Nantes next Thursday in advance of their second pool game against Tonga, who have been waiting in the long grass for their first game of the tournament, next Saturday, before meeting the Springboks in Paris a week subsequently in a game that is looming as potentially the most pivotal in the remainder of the pool stages.

The reigning champions, who meet Romania next Sunday in Bordeaux, opened the defence of their crown with an 18-3 win over Scotland in Pool B on Sunday thanks in the main to the unremitting pressure of their defence.

Having led 6-3 at the break, Pieter-Steph du Toit muscled his way over from close range before Kurt-Lee Arendse raced on to Manie Libbok’s no-look, cross-field kick to score in the corner. But Libbok’s unreliable goalkicking remains an issue, as he missed two kickable penalties, and the Springboks’ talismanic lock Eben Etzebeth also went off in the first half.


By contrast, the major boon from Ireland’s 82-8 win over Romania in the sweltering heat of Bordeaux was the successful 65 minute comeback by Johnny Sexton, who clearly took plenty of good-natured chiding in the Irish dressing-room after another landmark day in his stellar career.

He wore it well, in every sense.

“I heard he broke a few records today. What was the record Johnny?” Andy Farrell asked cheerily when turning to his captain alongside him at the post-match press conference.

“I thought we’d had the last question,” said Sexton with a weary, wry grin. He was not remotely inclined to confirm that he had just overtaken John Hayes (37 years and 277 days) as Ireland’s oldest international ever at 38 years and 58 days.

“And what was the other one?”

Again, Sexton let Farrell confirm that his 24-point haul had equalled the Irish individual points scoring record set by David Humphreys when kicking all of Ireland’s points in the 28-24 quarter-final playoff defeat by Argentina in Lens in 1999.

Also noting that in taking his haul to 1,074 points in Test matches for his country, Sexton has moved to within nine of Ronan O’Gara’s Irish record of 1,083 points.

“So you’d think, if selected, he’ll be able to get that record,” joked the Irish coach, but far more pleasing for both Farrell and Sexton was that he came through his first 65 minutes of game time in almost six months.

He’s a marvel really. We take it for granted that Sexton can defy the years but not only has he now done that for longer than any Irish international rugby player in history, allowing for a couple of scuffed restarts he looked strong, fit, full of running and the quality of his 40 passes, with that golf-like extended swing of his, was on the money every time.

And when he purrs, Ireland purr. It’s long been that simple.

As for “if selected’ or being wrapped in cotton wool for the Tonga game, forget it. Not the way Sexton referred to that match four times.

“Hopefully I’m the better for it,” he said of his comeback, “and I can improve my performance for Tonga. It’s going to be a much more difficult game, they’re obviously a different calibre of player. No disrespect to Romania, I thought they fronted up brilliantly and they were very physical, but you see the team that Tonga have and we know their threat.

“They’ve had this weekend off and they’ll have had two or three weeks to focus on our game, they’ve said that publicly. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us and we’re going to have to be ready.”

Defence coach Simon Easterby also intimated that Sexton will play against Tonga when he gave the management debrief on Sunday.

“I think it’s great that he got that many minutes. He looked good, he looked fresh, he was energetic and, I guess because of his age and his experience, he doesn’t tend to need a huge amount of rugby to get himself back into the swing of things.

“Johnny’s not got potentially many more times wearing the green jersey and those of you who know him will know he wants to play every minute that he can. That will be a conversation between him and Faz [Andy Farrell] and making sure that he and Faz are happy with the discussions and how they want to map out the next couple of weeks. But certainly from our end, he’s the captain, he’s the talisman in the squad and the more minutes he can play the better.

On the overall health of the squad, Easterby added: “I’d say we haven’t ruled anyone out for next week.”

Dan Sheehan, Dave Kilcoyne and Jack Conan were all ruled out of Ireland’s opening game and having been selected on the bench, Robbie Henshaw was withdrawn from the matchday squad in the Stade de Bordeaux after pulling up in Friday’s captain’s run with an unspecified injury.

“He’s one of a number of those guys that didn’t take part yesterday that we would expect to be ready for selection come tomorrow night,” said Easterby.

“We’re hopeful that Robbie and others who haven’t taken part for whatever reason are available next week, and I think that’s credit to the guys who are conditioning the boys and also the medics. The way that they’ve worked over the last few weeks in particular, at the moment we’re in pretty good shape.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times