Johnny Sexton ready to hit the ground running
Ireland outhalf is ‘itching’ for action following first proper pre-season in two years
Ireland outhalf Jonathan Sexton says France have been very focused on the World Cup and will present a huge challenge. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
As has usually been the case at World Cups, the Irish squad departed from New Zealand four years ago deflated. And some were probably a little more deflated than others, Johnny Sexton chief amongst them.
He started the opening two pool wins against the USA and Australia, landing two penalties and a drop goal in that 15-6 win at Eden Park, but having moved to inside centre after Ronan O’Gara replaced an injured Gordon D’Arcy, Sexton saw his third penalty miss hit the upright.
Who knows how differently his World Cup might have panned out had that gone over and he’d retained the kicking duties for Ireland’s subsequent two penalties. Instead, O’Gara took over and landed them, and Sexton was relegated to the bench for the wins over Russia and Italy, as well as the quarter-final defeat to Wales.
However, whereas he went into that World Cup as a 26-year-old vying for the number 10 jersey, with 19 caps and just 14 starts under his belt, now he is a more experienced outhalf, with 51 caps, including 43 starts. Under Joe Schmidt, with whom he enjoys a close coach-player relationship, he has become the main man.
“A lot has happened, hasn’t it? A lot of positives, a lot of highs and lows,” he mused yesterday. “Hopefully I’ll have learned from all of them and take those experiences and try to make it a successful World Cup, personally and for the team more importantly.
“I learnt a lot in the last World Cup, definitely. Maybe a lot of hard lessons but it definitely made me stronger and I’ve had a pretty good four years since. Hopefully I can perform individually and more importantly help the team in a collective way. That’s always Joe’s mantra – improving the team as an individual.”
Expected to make start at home to Wales next Saturday week and “itching to get back into it”, Sexton is grateful for his first proper pre-season in two years. “I definitely feel the benefits of it. I’ll still be blowing the first game back, definitely, as all the boys have been. I hope the long pre-season will do me good coming into the World Cup.”
Although the class of 2011 had reached their Holy Grail of a Grand Slam in 2009, no Irish team goes into a World Cup with the same body of work as this group after back-to-back Six Nations titles. Yet in contrast to four years ago, Sexton was on script and not of a mind to leave himself or the team hostage to fortune.
“You’re going to probably laugh, but we haven’t looked too far past each game. We honestly haven’t spoken about the World Cup yet. It is very different to the last World Cup, when we came in and had a goal-setting session on day one.
“We literally have taken it block by block, so the first five weeks were getting us as fit, fast and strong as we could. The next week was about preparing for Wales, then the boys for Scotland, and it’ll be very much Wales-focused next week. That’s how we’ve operated since Joe’s come in and that’s how we’ll continue.
“We’ve got to two in the world. Have we hit our best? I don’t think we have. I think there’s a lot of improvement in certain areas that we can do. I think if we can make those improvements, we’d be confident in our ability. Where that gets us I don’t know.”
In this he cited more accurate execution of moves, to convert them into tries, and added: “We’ve got to play France and they’re going to be at their best come World Cup time, they always are. They’re together, they’re fitter, they don’t have the distraction of a Top 14 match mid-Six Nations or the week before the Six Nations. For their first Six Nations game they have two sessions together. Now they’ve got three months, so it’s a huge task to take on a World Cup France and that’s not even taking into account the other teams. We’ve got our work cut out to win our pool and if we can do that – it’s a big ‘if’ – we can start talking about quarter-finals and beyond.”
To underline the point, France have comfortably won all three World Cup meetings with Ireland, and drawing on his insider knowledge of the French from his two years at Racing Metro, Sexton added: “One thing I did notice was the French are very geared up towards World Cups now. We’re very Six Nations focused, but with the French team it was almost like they were experimenting for the Six Nations to get it right for this World Cup. That’s the attitude I’ve picked up from them.”
All in all, Sexton goes along with the prevailing view that this looks like being the most open and competitive World Cup ever. “Yeah, definitely. You could see by the Six Nations – three teams winning four matches. The year before two teams won four matches. So from a European point of view, there’s not much between Wales, England, Ireland and France.
“You take that and then you look at the southern hemisphere teams all beating each other and, when they come over here we beat them sporadically. So I think it’s wide open. The fact that it’s in the northern hemisphere will, maybe, give the northern hemisphere teams a slight advantage.”
Ireland outhalf Johnny Sexton was at Dublin Airport today to encourage Irish rugby fans to fly with Aer Lingus as they travel to support the Ireland team. Aer Lingus is ‘the official airline of the Irish rugby team’. Supporters can find out more at www.aerlingus.com.