Johnny Sexton happily vindicated by Ireland’s excellence

Captain says team were always confident that such a performance was very close

Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki celebrate after Six Nations win over England. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki celebrate after Six Nations win over England. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The Millennium trophy is an odd little plaque with a horned helmet and gold trim designed in memory of the Vikings who raided the east coast in the 10th century before settling at Wood Quay to create a city called Dublin. Nowadays, the area is famous for an underground car park with concrete trim. Johnny Sexton lives a few miles up the road.

Sexton, the Ragnar from Rathgar in this tale, enjoyed handing over the trinket to his teammates after their winless streak against England, dating back to St Patrick’s Day in 2018, was dissolved in fantastic fashion.

The only shame is it cannot be properly celebrated. But this victory infuses the Sexton captaincy with much needed energy as only a piece of silverware can do.

“No, we won a trophy last week as well,” the leader objected with a smile. “The Quaich trophy. So we are double champions.”

How to turn critics into believers. Nobody expected England - slayers of the Normans, sorry, the French - to be mugged like their invading ancestors’ have suffered on the Lansdowne turf every half decade or so down through the ages.

The presumption was that Eddie Jones’ glittering coaching ticket - the best that Sterling can tempt north from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand - would atone for the 2019 World Cup final defeat, when they failed to replicate the phenomenal display that downed the All Blacks in the semi-final.

After overpowering France last weekend, Jones openly dismissed injury concerns and targeted a performance of menace and viciousness to keep Ireland neatly in their place. Afterwards he seemed lost for words as England completed a Triple Crown of losses after a beating at the Aviva stadium that will resonate into summer and beyond.

“No one believed me did they?” said Sexton immediately afterwards. “That was the performance we wanted against one of the best sides in the world.

“That’s the standard we have set now. Hopefully we can become more consistent. The only worry we should have is the need to back that performance up.”

The result paints Andy Farrell’s assistant coaches in a new light. It was instantly apparent that Paul O’Connell had made a difference to the camp but Mike Catt’s attack had yet to produce the mesmerising moves and switches synonymous with his predecessor.

Farrell wants Ireland to move in an entirely different direction. He explained that it would take time. Such leeway had run its course come kick-off here. Reputations, contract extensions and jobs were all on the line.

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty during the Six Nations win over England. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty during the Six Nations win over England. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Fear of a heavy defeat was ridiculed by one of the special and rare days when everything clicks for an Irish team. When a fingertip aerial offload by Jack Conan allowed Keith Earls to run wild. When Hugo Keenan catches an impossible dropping ball in the England 22 like he was playing Aussie Rules all his life rather than centre half for Mount Merrion Boys.

“That is a game-defining moment,” said Sexton. “If he doesn’t win that they mark it and clear their lines. Hugo wins it and we score a try. These are the fine margins I am talking about all the time. Sometimes you make your own luck. Hugo grasped it with an incredible take.”

It was a day when, finally, coaching expertise was unmistakeable.

“It is Faz and Catty and the players,” Sexton responded to a direct question about Catt’s attack. “The team stuff is led by Andy.

“Catty is obviously in charge of the starter plays. It is a little bit of everything, isn’t it?

“We’ve got to keep getting better.”

The wonder is how such a stunningly efficient performance came to pass.

“A mixture of things. We wanted to do ourselves justice for the work we have put in. That was a huge motivator. We got some coaches that motivate us incredibly well, every week.

“Obviously CJ’s (Stander) last game was a big one but the big driver for me was getting the win we felt we deserved and the performance we felt we deserved.

“I was sick of coming in here talking to you guys every week, having to defend ourselves, and saying we are not that far away, and we just need to do this slightly better.

“I think you guys thought I ... I don’t know what you thought but I don’t think you believed me. We got a performance we felt we deserved.”

That will more than suffice.

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