Johnny Sexton is back in what had become very unfamiliar terrain of late. Last Saturday's first Test not only marked his first time on the Irish bench since the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Wales in 2011, but also his first taste of defeat in 20 games this season.
The last time he lost for Ireland was in Cardiff in the penultimate round of the 2017 Six Nations and the last time he tasted defeat of any kind was in the Lions' first Test defeat to the All Blacks in Eden Park.
In another similarity, he was a replacement that day too, before returning to the starting line-up for the second Test victory and third Test draw, when he and Owen Farrell were so instrumental in bringing more variety and width to the tourists' attacking game.
Hence, you’d imagine there would be comparisons for him to draw upon at the same juncture in that Test series but surprisingly not so as he admitted at the Irish squad’s base in downtown Melbourne yesterday.
“I actually didn’t think of that comparison but I was on the bench for that first game as well. If you lose a game, you can look back and say, ‘If we play as well as we can, and do everything we can,’ you can live with it to a certain extent, but there’s parts of the game that we look back on and say, ‘We didn’t quite do that good enough’.
"We could go out and play absolutely brilliant this week and still not get the right result because we're in Australia, playing against a very good team with very good players. That's the nature of coming down at the end of the season and playing Tests down here. At least let's play our best and see where that gets us."
Reflecting on that week, off the top of his head one comparison that sprung to mind: "It's probably similar in terms of we didn't play as well as we could in the first game, and that was a frustration. If we'd played as well as we could in that first Test in New Zealand we felt we could have got a result. We felt the same this week, if we'd played as well as we could, we may have won. We may not have, but that's the biggest frustration from our point of view. We didn't hit the standards that we want to and the coaches demand, and let's do that this week and see where it gets us."
Although this week’s review comes in the wake of a defeat, Sexton maintained it was essentially not that different from reviews after the five wins in the Six Nations.
It's all outcome-based, isn't it? If you go after it and win, it's brilliant. If you don't, then you look silly
“The reviews are always the same. We are very performance-driven. Even when we win, there’s times in the recent past where the coaches haven’t been happy with what we’ve done. Even when we’re winning through the Six Nations and we’re conceding tries in the last 15 or 20 minutes, Faz isn’t happy. Or there’s other parts of the game where different coaches aren’t happy. We are very performance-driven and I think if we had sneaked a win on Saturday, the review would have still been the same.”
Some of the reviews outside the squad's environs have focused on the slightly surprising tactic of hanging the first kick-off on Israel Folau, and even more surprisingly then repeating the trick on subsequent restarts.
“It’s all outcome-based, isn’t it? If you go after it and win, it’s brilliant. If you don’t, then you look silly. Again, all our decisions are outcome-based, from your guys’ point of view. We’ve got a plan, we go out and do it and sometimes it comes off and we’ve been lucky over the last couple of years that it’s come off the majority of the time. I don’t think we implemented our plan as the coaches would have liked and that’s the disappointing thing.”
Through Folau, Australia also targeted one of this Irish team’s established strengths, namely in the air, and whether in exit or attacking strategies to rather greater affect – the athletic full-back’s aerial ability earning the platform for both of their tries in the first Test.
Sexton confessed the extent of this tactic had been “a little bit” surprising “because over the last few years they’ve run the ball loads, but if you’ve got Folau in your backline you’d be silly not to kick high to him. He’s outstanding in the air and we’ve got some outstanding guys in the air as well and the margins between a few of the aerial contests were so small.
“Both guys get up as high and he’s just, just winning it. I’m sure they’ll come again with it this week and we’ve got to be a little bit better in that regard. They’ve got quality throughout the team. When you look at their backline, it’s scary the amount of pace and ball players they have at the same time. At times, we dealt with them really well and at other times, not so well. We will take a lot from that going into this week.”
Any team coached by his former Leinster boss Michael Cheika is obliged to bring a no-holds-barred physicality to their work, and the entirely legitimate big hits of the first quarter in Brisbane had a seismic and energising effect on home team and crowd alike.
“We expected it,” said Sexton. “Under Michael Cheika, they will bring that and we spoke about that; we know him better than anyone, really. We knew it was coming, but we probably didn’t deal with it as well as we could have in terms of allowing them to come out of the line and hit us like they did.
“We’ll learn from it and I’m sure they’ll bring the same intensity this week. Michael is a pretty relentless character and he will demand the same of them this week.”
The coaching staff won't finalise the team until Thursday's training as they track training form and the recovery of some players from the first Test
Given the memory of the Lions’ encounter with Cheika’s Waratahs team five years ago, when they blatantly sought to rough Sexton up and rattle him, the Irish outhalf’s cards are well marked. He can safely expect more of the same.
Sexton could captain Ireland for the first time in Saturday's second Test depending on whether Joe Schmidt rejigs the Irish backrow and decides not to start Peter O'Mahony. In any event, along with Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose, he seems sure to return to a more familiar and established-looking starting XV - although Bundee Aki is expected to lose his place due to injury.
The coaching staff won't finalise the team until Thursday's training as they track training form and the recovery of some players from the first Test, especially Keith Earls in light of him observing the Return to Play protocols.
Ireland (possible): Kearney; Earls, Ringrose, Henshaw, Stockdale; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Herring, Furlong, Toner, Ryan, O'Mahony, Leavy, Stander.