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Johnny Sexton is wrong: Ireland needed more than a quarter-final exit to inspire the nation

Making a World Cup final would have expanded Irish rugby’s circle enormously; going out in the quarter-final again made it feel no different

“We lost, but we won.”

Hang on – Johnny Sexton said that? Actual Johnny Sexton? Johnny, we hardly knew ya. All this time, we figured the great man for the ultimate cranky, relentless, winning-is-the-only-thing results monster. Who knew it was really about the friends we made along the way?

Four years ago we sat down as a squad and spoke about what we wanted to achieve,” read the sign-off to Sexton’s retirement statement during the week. “Our main motivation and objective was to inspire the nation. I think we achieved that. We lost, but we won.”

Now. Obviously, nothing Johnny Sexton posts on Instagram should ever – or can ever – diminish what he has meant to Irish sport for the past decade-and-a-half. He has been everything you want a sportsperson to be – cunning, ferocious, unyielding, successful. He has taken the most pressurised position in his sport and made it something Ireland supporters have not had to worry about. It could become startlingly clear over the coming years just how precious a gift to us that was.


But you have to admit – there’s something very unSexton about that sign-off. Of all the people to decide that inspiring the nation was the real quiz, you’d have ticked plenty off the squad list before you got to his name. Clearly, it’s an emotional thing, calling time on your career. And it’s only right, in this week of all weeks, that Johnny Sexton should be allowed all the leeway in the world to say what he likes.

What makes it so fascinating though is the sentiment. Leave aside the “We lost, but we won” thing for a minute. Does he really think the Ireland rugby team inspired a nation at the World Cup? Does anybody really think that? Be honest now – did it feel that way where you were?

There’s no mystery in why it might have felt that way to the team themselves. Their experience of the World Cup was to be right there, to be nothing less than the actual beating heart of it. For them, the World Cup was epic Saturday night after epic Saturday night. It was Paris under lights, one of the world’s great cities being painted green. It was a rapturous Irish invasion. It was a Zombie apocalypse, in a good way.

To be down on the pitch, to be the catalyst for all of that, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t get high off it. It must have felt to them like they were the tip of an incredibly long spear. The viewing figures tell their own story on the level of support they had – for the first time in years, the Toy Show is in bother when it comes to the most-watched TV event of the year.

But inspiring the nation? Dunno about that. Ireland went out at the quarter-final stage again. This one wasn’t like the others, no. The team performed, they didn’t fold, they went toe-to-toe with the All Blacks, all the way to the final play of the four-year cycle. But in one galling respect, it was exactly like the others. The result was the same. Sport has a disgusting clarity to it, ultimately.

And that’s okay! Ireland didn’t choke. Ireland didn’t bottle it. They weren’t hopeless or hapless or any of the other lesses you can come up with. Anyone who wants to make a big show of calling them names most likely had their mind made up in advance. There’s no need for the rest of us to take that sort of chat seriously.

But the brass tacks are fairly simple. Ireland were involved in a couple of epochal, classic matches against South Africa and New Zealand and they came out on the right side of one and the wrong side of the other. It happens. First rule of professional sport – the other crowd get paid to come to work as well.

And it stung. No doubt about it. If rugby is your thing, you might not be over it yet. You’ll watch the final this weekend and some part of you will have your enjoyment spoiled by knowing Ireland should be in it. That if Ronan Kelleher had just settled himself and made sure of his timing, Ireland would have beaten New Zealand and Argentina and they’d be there, right there in Paris, playing for all the marbles. Christ, you’d probably be there yourself, roaring them on.

But let’s be honest here – rugby people are not who Sexton means when he talks about inspiring the nation. They’re in already. If a woolly, aspirational phrase like that means anything, it means expanding rugby’s circle beyond its normal hinterland. It means the game mattering more, to more people, for longer. It means a deeper connection. Making it to a World Cup final would definitely have done that. Going out at the same stage as we always go out palpably did not.

The great pity is that the nation was ready to be inspired. We had done all the flirting and the foreplay. We were inspiration-curious. The winning streak, the Grand Slam, the thrilling style of play – so, so many of us were up for that in a way that was different to before.

And yet, when it was over, when the cold truth of another quarter-final exit descended, it was surprisingly easy for people outside the rugby bubble to shrug it off and get on with their weekend. That’s all intangible and there’s no empirical way to measure it, of course. But you know it when you see it. Out in the world, the clocks didn’t stop. There was no minute’s silence. The nation moved onto the next thing.

Once again, that’s okay. It’s okay to do your best and not win. Johnny Sexton did his best and won plenty. He did it better than generations of Irish sportspeople who went before him. That’s a real thing. It will outlive us all. Nobody will forget the career he had, the skills he showed, the magnificent f**k you belligerence he brought to every minute he was on the pitch. That’s all intangible too. But by Christ, you knew it when you saw it.

You’d hope Johnny Sexton knows it too. You’d hope he knows it’s all more real and more meaningful than sweeping statements about inspiring this or that. And, most importantly, you’d hope that it’s enough.

He of all people doesn’t need to reach for imagined victories.