Johnny Sexton keen to grab Grand Slam opportunity with both hands

Ireland outhalf impresses on younger players that chance doesn’t come along too often

In 2009 Declan Kidney told Johnny Sexton that the Grand Slam belongs to him as much as the rest.

Sexton will never swallow such a line: “Declan said I was just as much a part of it as everyone else in 2009 when I was on the bibs. I definitely didn’t feel that way.

“But I remember some of the talks around that time from the O’Driscolls, O’Connells, O’Garas – they were trying to achieve this for 10 years and you just could tell by their actions through that season how much it meant to them.

"They had to drag along guys like Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and young guys coming through. It's very similar to that now.


"I think Rory [Best] is desperate for Grand Slam because he feels he would be a bigger part of it now than he played back then [when Best understudied for Jerry Flannery in four of the five matches].

“For us it is about dragging those young lads on. They probably think they are going to get loads of opportunities but as I know it doesn’t work out like that. I remember playing Scotland in Croke Park for a Triple Crown [in 2010]and almost taking it for granted because I thought I’d have plenty more opportunities like this.

“I still haven’t won a Triple Crown.

“You’ve got to take these opportunities with both hands when they come.”

Due to back spasms, Sexton confirmed he hardly trained this week: "I could have spent a bit more time on the [training] pitch. I took only a limited time on Tuesday. So I contributed to a little of that confusion [with Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose]. Hopefully we can fix that next week."

This is already a season people in and around Irish rugby will never forget – for harrowing and joyous reasons – but the on field journey began with Sexton putting a drop goal between French posts after 41 phases in Paris on February 3rd.

“We said after that it was a very special moment for the team and we will look back next week after we have lifted the trophy but also hopefully with a Grand Slam and see that as a huge five minutes.

“Look,” Sexton added. “It’s very muted upstairs. It is a very strange feeling to win the championship with a game to go. There is so much still to play for.

“The shoe is on the other foot now, after last year, and I’m sure they will be licking their lips.

“I know a lot of the [English players] from Lions trips and they are very proud people. I’m sure they will be gunning for us.”

On to Twickenham then – the most difficult assignment for any team seeking to complete the Slam – with Ireland coach Joe Schmidt unburdened by history.

Because the teams Schmidt has coached in this country have consistently broke new ground – back to back European titles with Leinster, three Six Nations in five years, a Test victory in South Africa, beating the All Blacks.

“History doesn’t protect you from the future,” said Schmidt of what lies ahead.

Ireland’s Achilles heel is known: tempt opponents to beat them in the wide channels.

Can your basics skills beat our scramble defence?

Scotland’s individual handling betrayed them – three different players failed to deliver killer passes for what looked certain tries.

It allowed Schmidt to offer a line about this being a "one-score performance but a 20-point result" while Scotland coach Gregor Townsend feels Scotland are "two, three years" behind these Grand Slam chasers.

(18 months until they meet in Japan, Gregor) So which is it?

“We had over 600 running metres with the ball in hand today,” said Schmidt, “that is a very high number. It means we are really challenging teams and causing them a little bit of angst.”

Scotland did gift Jacob Stockdale an intercept try. How they let it happen reveals a naive attacking team – Stockdale already marked his ability to punish the big, looping pass against Wales while Scotland were flinging very similar balls into space against England.

“I thought Jacob read it very well but I was surprised they threw it after his try against Wales,” Schmidt agreed.

Huw Jones will see Garry Ringrose in his nightmares. The much vaunted Scottish 13 was totally outclassed by the under-cooked Ireland centre.

(Ringrose, despite months out injured, made 12 carries for 91 metres and made 11 tackles in a stunning performance).

Jones is a superb attacker. On 28 minutes he shredded the Irish defence, after quick thinking by Finn Russell, chipping and re-gathering to evade Rob Kearney but then he blew it. With only Sexton to beat and Stuart Hogg gliding into his peripheral vision Jones tossed the ball to ground.

Hogg ruined another certain try on 50 minutes with a terrible pass, under pressure from Kearney, to the waiting Blair Kinghorn.

They were not done shooting themselves in the head. On 54 minutes, with the game still a contest at 21-8, Pete Horne’s bullet pass missed Jones and went over Kinghorn’s’s head.

"Yeah, Peter Horne put it across one of his players and it came off his fingertips," said Schmidt. "I think they were really good chances for them."

Still, Wales took plenty of joy from Ireland in wide channels because their basic skills came off.

Did we see the same defensive flaws again?

“Not really,” Schmidt replied. “They were on penalty advantage from a lineout maul and when you are throwing players into that you inevitably get shorter on the edge. We may have done slightly better when they scored out wide.”

Schmidt wants a Grand Slam as much as he doesn't want it to slip from Ireland's grasp. That happened with defeat at Twickenham in 2014 and a deeply frustrating day at the hands of Wayne Barnes – who was superb, and clear in instructions here – in Cardiff in 2015.

“We are just keen to get everyone fit to train Monday and Tuesday,” said Schmidt. “Then we’ll head over to England Thursday and see what we can do over there.”

Ringrose was limping at the end. Sexton's mid-week back issues meant Ian Keatley was added to the group. Peter O'Mahony and Cian Healy were forced off. "There are a fair few bumps and bruises but no injuries."

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent