Rugby World CupIreland Reaction

‘These guys will go on and achieve great things’ - Emotional Johnny Sexton bows out

Andy Farrell: ‘It was a fantastic game to be part of, it was probably fitting of a final’

Of all the World Cup quarter-finals that got away, this was the toughest to take. The series win in New Zealand, the Grand Slam and the 17-match winning sequence by Ireland only made the pain of another exit more acute, not least for Johnny Sexton as this 28-24 defeat spelt the end of his stellar career.

He and Andy Farrell were left to reflect on the key moments and tiny margins that were always likely to decide a titanic contest which would have befitted any final.

Their frustrations were probably all the more acute in the knowledge that their aerial game, lineout, scrum and the breakdown were all under regular pressure and underperformed, yet they left nothing of themselves on the Stade de France pitch and were still so close.

“Fine margins and all that,” rued the Irish head coach. “Being held up over the line from a maul very close to the end, which could have sealed the game. Those little bits are all over the game, aren’t they?


“Ifs, buts and maybes and all that, but at the end of the day it was two good teams out there playing some outstanding rugby, and unfortunately for us we came out on the wrong side of the score.

“Sport can be cruel sometimes I suppose, that’s why we love it so much, but I’ll reflect on it more over the coming days. My initial feeling is that I’m unbelievably proud of the group, how they handled themselves, not just today but all through the tournament, over the last couple of years. That will be my overriding feeling.”

The crestfallen Sexton could hardly disguise his feelings after such a bitter anticlimax to this campaign and his career.

“It’s gutting, isn’t it? The last six weeks have been incredible, the support, the way we’ve played, the combination of both has been a dream come true really, for all of us, and I include today as well.

“I just felt they didn’t have to work as hard for their tries. It was like being sucker-punched a couple of times, I’m not taking anything away from them, they’re a quality team, but the way we had to work for our scores and have the upper hand in a lot of parts of the game, and to concede the try we did in the second half and then fight back again just shows the character of the team. They’re an incredible bunch really. I’m very, very proud to be part of it.”

At least Farrell could be content that this team died with their boots on, and he reflected and spoke with pride on what they had achieved.

“It is. If you go out with a whimper, it’s pretty hard to take. We deserve a little bit more of ourselves than that and we didn’t. When New Zealand put pressure on people and get the scoreboard ticking over and it was 6-0 and we gave three penalties away at the start of the game that gave them the soft points there.

“Then they score next as well and all of sudden we’ve seen time and time again with this team, the All Blacks that is, just take the game away from people and these guys, they kept on believing in themselves and rightly so because of the rugby that they’re able to play under pressure.

“I’m immensely proud of absolutely everyone that’s connected with Irish rugby, to be fair. The standards have been immense over the last four years, the players – not just in this squad – that we’ve used in that four-year cycle have been a joy to work with.

“And not just that, their connection with the fans, it seemed like it’s all one big family. I’m unbelievably proud to be associated with it all. I think the sad thing for us now is that for this group it’s probably the end. Obviously it is for Johnny and Keith Earls is going to retire as well, so things are going to change. Mick Kearney our manager is going to finish up as well.

“Over the next 24 hours, it’s time to make sure that we get a smile back on our faces as soon as we possibly can and celebrate what has been some unbelievable careers and what they have done for Irish rugby. It’s important to us, that.”

The Irish camp clearly felt aggrieved with the three scrum penalties against Andrew Porter, but Farrell was not of a mind to make too much of an issue out of this.

“We’ve a different view to what was going on out there but we don’t want to sit here and have sour grapes,” he said. “We want to congratulate New Zealand on a fantastic performance, it was a fantastic game to be part of, it was probably fitting of a final.

“The scrum was part of the equation 100 per cent and we’ll get the answers. Andrew 100 per cent was very frustrated with what was going on out there. We don’t want to be bitter loses. We want to hold our head up high and do it the right way.”

Sexton said these past two years and playing in this Irish team had been the most enjoyable of his career, in giving a hearty thanks to the Irish supporters.

“Thank you. Yeah. How can you be prouder to be Irish when you see what’s happened over the last six weeks really?

“We get behind the team like no other. It’s incredible and it’s not wasted on us, and that’s why it is so hard to take really, that we didn’t give them another couple of weekends.

“But like Faz said, it’s small margins and that’s sport. That’s life. It’s unfortunate but this group will bounce back.

“They are an incredible bunch led by the man beside me. It’s the best group I have ever been apart of. Bar none.

“These guys will go on and achieve great things and I’ll be sitting in the stand having a pint like you lads.”

The post-Sexton era now looms imminently into view, but Farrell maintained: “I think a lot of our group are still learning, and I just said to the group in the changing room the reason they’re going to keep on learning is because of this guy sat beside me here.

“The impact that he’s had on the rest of the team over the last four years has been amazing, and the way that he’s conducted himself as a leader and as a player and the way that he’s shown the love playing for Ireland will be remembered and connected to this group for many years to come. Through his example, the younger guys will keep on getting better and striving to be better, there’s no doubt about that.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times