Johnny Sexton focused on Wales but dreaming of bringing it all back home

‘It’s not every year you get a home game to finish the tournament’

As he embarks upon his 13th Six Nations campaign, during which time he has missed only eight of 60 games, Johnny Sexton is way too experienced to look far beyond Ireland's opening game at home to Wales on Saturday week, publicly at any rate.

Sexton only needs the reminder of last season’s opening defeat in Cardiff. The buzz word at Wednesday’s annual Guinness Six Nations launch was, as ever, “momentum”, Sexton adding: “And it is very true in the Six Nations. When you get a good start the camp is happier and training is easier to go to and all that. A good start is very important.”

Ireland-Wales games are notoriously unpredictable, with “no correlation” as Sexton put it between provincial/regional performances and the Test arena. Besides which, Ireland have won just two of the last seven meetings in the Six Nations.

“Yeah, it’s a big rivalry, isn’t it? Over the years they haven’t been shy in saying that, that they’re not mad about the Irish. So I think big rivalries make for unpredictable fixtures.


“We’re coming up against the champions, coming up against a team that beat us last year, and we want to do something in this championship. And the best way to do that is to start off with a good performance and that’s what all our focus will be on over the next 10 days.”

Yet Sexton knows he won’t have too many more opportunities like this. So he’s dared to have a cursory glance at the fixture list. While admitting that Ireland’s biennial itinerary in even years, pitting them against France and England away, appears the harder, Sexton added in reference to the final game against Scotland at home: “If you want to speak about the competition as a whole it’s not every year you get a home game to finish the tournament.

“For us that’s exciting. The work that needs to be done to get us into a position that we can do something at the end of the tournament, in our home venue and in front of a full crowd, that’s what I’m thinking about.

“So then you’ve got to bring it back to this moment and how we prepare for the opening game against Wales and that’s what we’re thinking about at the moment, making sure that we get off to the best start possible.”

The last time Ireland won a title in front of a home crowd was when clinching the 1985 Five Nations with a 13-10 win over England at the old Lansdowne Road. That’s 37 years ago!

The four Championships won since then, including two Grand Slams in 2009 and 2018, as well as the 2014 and 15 titles, were sealed in Cardiff, Paris, Murrayfield and Twickenham.

The prospect of crowds returning for the first time since midway through the 2020 Championship also had all captains and coaches additionally excited about the coming two months.

“To have them back now is a huge boost,” said Sexton after recent “fears” of heavily restricted capacities were removed. “And it gives everyone a great chance, because ultimately you are playing for your country, you want to showcase what you can do in front of the people closest to you first of all, but then also to the wider audience. To have them back part of it is a huge part of why you play the game.”

With bulk suppliers Leinster and Munster having dusted off some cobwebs and all four provinces through to the Champions Cup knock-out stages for the first time, Ireland appear to be in a good place. Joey Carbery has been given the all-clear to resume contact training ahead of the squad's departure to Portugal on Thursday for a six-day camp, with only Iain Henderson – who hasn't played since injuring his ankle in Ulster's win over Northampton on December 17th – the only doubt as things stand.

"What's a good tournament?" said Ireland head coach Andy Farrell rhetorically. "Well, it makes me laugh when coaches say they want to finish second or third. I don't know anyone who doesn't want to finish first. We're no different to every other team in the competition in that regard. But I think ultimately we want to kick on as a group, we want to kick on in the way we play the games, we want to push new boundaries for ourselves."

The win over the All Blacks last November also provides a template for the quick tempo Ireland ideally want to play with, but then again this is the Six Nations.

“We want to play every game as quick as we can and so does every other team, I’m sure about that,” ventured Farrell. “As I always say, each game takes its own course and certainly when you try and predict how things are going to go in the Six Nations, you come away with egg on your face trying to predict it, as a punter, never mind being a coach.

“There are so many variables aren’t there? Whether it be momentum, red cards, bonus points, the weather. You’ve got to be adaptable and roll with the punches because that’s what the Six Nations is; a competition that is like no other.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times