Johnny Sexton: ‘I’m just glad to get out the other side of it’
It’s an incredible odyssey for Ireland’s Number 10, and we are all being swept along
Johnny Sexton celebrates victory after Ireland’s NatWest Six Nations match against England at Twickenham. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Normality is Johnny Sexton all bloodied, passing another HIA for suspected concussion after putting his body on the line again, unable to place-kick for whatever reason, yet winning so everything else is overshadowed.
These are the days of his life, laid bare before us.
“It has been a weird week, horrible in many ways,” Sexton revealed. “People were talking about us trying to enjoy it but I found it very tough to enjoy, the build-up, it was nerve-racking at times.
“I’m just glad to get out the other side of it.”
Sexton was a frustrated 23-year-old “in the bibs” when Ireland coach Declan Kidney told him that he had earned the 2009 Grand Slam the same as Rory Best and Rob Kearney.
Sexton, never easily fooled, returned to Leinster where another coach, Michael Cheika, was refusing to look past his Argentinean maestro.
Then, suddenly, this odyssey began. Felipe Contepomi’s twisted knee early in the Croke Park semi-final against Munster saw Sexton walk on, plant a penalty into the Canal End, roaring in Ronan O’Gara’s face after Gordon D’Arcy’s try.
Greatness followed, yet nothing compares to a Grand Slam. This is Johnny Sexton in 2018. Those present in Twickenham could hardly believe he was still standing never mind talking afterwards. The punishment he inflicts upon himself is so dizzyingly harsh to witness.
Rewind to Conor Murray’s lineout steal. It’s 14-0, following Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander tries, but the English maul and their fleet-footed backs spend seven minutes pounding the Irish line. Peter O’Mahony has been sin-binned – the Munster captain was eventually removed on 73 minutes on the instruction of Nigel Owens – “Six green definitely needs to be looked at. Shaky after a ruck” – for collapsing the Maro Itoje maul.
Dylan Hartley demands a penalty try. Angus Gardner disagrees. Hartley lofts his throw over Chris Robshaw. Murray leaps yet fumbles when smashed by George Kruis.
Sexton pounces on a bobbling ball. Itoje arches over him. Owen Farrell is roaring at the Australian referee. So is Sexton, sitting up now, dark blood pouring down his face. Farrell’s trailing hand appeared to catch him.
Gardner signals for a blood sub three times while stating: “The TMO will check it if . . .”
“I don’t need to go off,” Sexton screams. “I don’t need to go off!”
Gardner looks stunned. “I know, I know, I’m just calling your guys on.”
Mako Vunipola obliterates Sexton at the next ruck before Farrell slips the clutches of Bundee Aki, but Keith Earls denies Anthony Watson a certain try. The Lions fullback feels his left achilles tendon slip up his leg.
“Some of our defence was incredible. I know they scored a few tries but they are an outstanding team. You must give them credit for that. We made Andy [Farrell, father of Owen] proud of the effort on the first day back in Twickenham for him [since his time as the England assistant coach].”
Eventually, young Farrell’s clever stab puts Elliot Daly sliding over for the try, to make it 14-5, all as a familiar sight returns: Sexton being forced off for a Head Injury Assessment.
“Yeah, it was tough because of how cold it was. You have to stay inside for 10 minutes [to complete the HIA] and then half-time came so I was a long time off, so it was difficult. I thought I was fine to keep going, but I suppose the way the game is going you have to take all the precautions.”
This week we didn’t speak about a Grand Slam – we just spoke about putting in our best performance
Sexton missed Jacob Stockdale’s seventh try of the campaign, returning to almost immediately provide a speed bump for Ben Te’o’s charge. That was another gruesome collision, but he remained deep inside the fray for 23 more minutes even as Conor Murray kicked the last penalty.
Remarkably, and people should know this, Sexton was compos mentis afterwards, happily telling writers about finally joining the generation that he links to these fresh historic moments in Irish sport.
“I remember sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel eight years ago, before we played Scotland in Croke Park, and Declan Kidney spoke about Triple Crowns being hard to come by and I looked around and saw Ronan [O’Gara] and Paul [O’Connell] and Brian [O’Driscoll] sort of roll their eyes up to heaven, as they had four of them. So, yeah, at that stage of my career I didn’t think that all these years later a Triple Crown would be something I’d still be waiting to win.”
On the pitch after his drop goal in Paris he revealed what this team desires above all else: a Grand Slam and to become world champions.
“It’s probably the first time we’ve been allowed speak about the Grand Slam before the campaign. It was blatantly obvious to the older guys – Keith Earls, myself, Rob, Rory – that we wanted to win a Grand Slam. We have always been very process-driven so we spoke about it at the start and then parked it. This week we didn’t speak about a Grand Slam – we just spoke about putting in our best performance.”
We politely inquire about the madness of Joe Schmidt.
“He keeps you on your toes. He, eh, how do I put this nicely, at times during the week you are driven demented with him, but you know he is doing it for a reason – putting pressure on you in training, at meetings, to make sure on Saturday every box is ticked, to make sure all the prep is done. He is an incredible coach, his record with Irish teams speaks for itself. He was three years with Leinster and got to six finals. Five years with Ireland and we have won three championships, a Grand Slam, the World Cup obviously didn’t go to plan but there are lots of reasons why. Hopefully we can have a good crack at the next one.”
The rest of us can only follow him down the most thrilling and treacherous path imaginable.