Johnny Sexton ready for a different test against Scotland

Ireland captain says Lions selection at the back of everyone’s mind with two games to go

Johnny Sexton of Ireland takes a kick during the Six Nations win over Italy at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Johnny Sexton of Ireland takes a kick during the Six Nations win over Italy at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

As France did in round one, Ireland made hay while the sun shone brilliantly in Rome last Saturday week but Johnny Sexton admits that Ireland’s tactics in Murrayfield could be influenced by the weather.

Ireland played with ambition and width from the off in the Stadio Olimpico, ultimately coming up just shy of France’s win on the opening weekend when scoring six tries in a 48-10 victory.

“The thing that helped us (was that) the weather was pretty good. There was no wind or rain, it was a dry ball, so that is a big factor in how you play,” the Irish captain emphasised.

“Against Wales we showed some very good stuff with 14 men and it is very hard to do that. I don’t think I’ve ever hit so many rucks in my life as I did in that game but it is all-hands-on-deck and it’s where can you fill in?

“Against France it is a different game, it is a greasy ball, tough conditions for the guys, so it could be tough conditions again this Sunday in Murrayfield.

“By the looks of it, it is going to be wet and windy so we might not see that game. It could be back to rolling the sleeves up and that’s okay as well.”

In any event, Sexton concurred with Paul O’Connell’s view that this is the best Scottish team he has encountered.

“Yeah, I think so. The way they started the campaign, winning away to England was very impressive in the poor conditions. They managed the game very well. It’s not an easy place to go and play well, dominate field position, and they had real good patches in that game and could have arguably won by more.”

Noting how Scotland recovered from going down to 14 men against Wales

in the 54th minute, Sexton ventured: “In their camp they probably think they gave away a soft try. Then, but for that tap tackle they would be going for a Triple Crown against us,” he added, in reference to Owen Watkins’ tackle which denied Duhan van der Merwe a match-winning try in the game’s last play.

“Paulie is right. They are going well and they will fancy their chances. They will feel that maybe they should have beaten us the last two times they played us and they have improved a lot since then so I am sure that they will be full of confidence and we have massive respect for them. A really well-coached side too.”

Sexton’s counterpart at outhalf on Sunday, Finn Russell, has emulated the Irish captain by moving to Racing 92, and he acknowledged the threat which the inventive Scottish 10 will pose.

“He’s a big threat for us, knowing that he’s got a full box of tricks that he tries to pull out most games. He’s a good threat to the line, he has a good short kicking game and he can pull the strings if we let him. He’s hurt us in the past.

“We haven’t played against him the last few times we’ve played Scotland, so we’ve had to go back and look at some old footage. They’ve got threats across their team, but him and (Stuart) Hogg are probably the standout guys. We have to be on our game to stop them.”

Sexton’s duel with Russell will be one of several which is likely to have ramifications for the composition of the Lions squad this summer and the Irish captain, seeking to be a part of a third tour, admits that this once-every-four-years plotline adds spice to the remaining games.

“Of course, of course. It’s not at the forefront of our thoughts because even if it wasn’t a Lions year we would still be going out to win the game and to put our best foot forward but obviously at the back of your mind the next two are very important games in terms of those Lions selections.

“It will help the Irish cause if we can pick up a couple of wins. It will help get some more numbers on the plane and that’s ultimately what we want, isn’t it? We want to get as many Irish people on that trip as possible so, yeah, it’s definitely in the back of our minds somewhere.”

Having recently signed a new one-year extension with the IRFU and Leinster, Sexton laughed at any suggestion he might have been disappointed not to have been offered a two-year deal.

“No. It was done in the right way. With all the Covid things it didn’t start (at the usual time). It was agreed pretty quickly. Once you get to the age I’m at, most guys in their mid-30s go ‘one year, see how you feel this time next year, how you’re performing, how the body’s holding up, how the mind’s holding up.

“That’s really it. I always knew it was a one-year-at-a-time job when I got to this stage. So delighted to continue the journey for another year and still very hungry to try and achieve success with Leinster and Ireland. Once my team-mates know that, they see it every day on the training pitch, that’s all that matters to me.”

Justifying his worth over the next year or so to earn another deal will be the least source of motivation for him.

“I don’t think I’m motivated by contract. I’m motivated by trying to achieve things with these teams. To try and win things.

“I’m very driven to try and finish this campaign on a high and then go back to Leinster, try to have a successful end to the season. Then think about next year when summertime rolls around and you have some time to reflect and see where you are. Very short-term focus at the moment.”

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