Johnny Sexton’s drive to take Ireland back to the top won’t diminish
Ireland captain uses media chiding as motivation and that can be increasingly seen
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton celebrates with Ross Byrne after the win over Scotland. Photo: Gary Carr/Inpho
Johnny Sexton’s most admirable leadership traits can be twisted into flaws. The head-shaking open challenge of a bad coaching decision. An “us against the world” mentality. Constantly putting his body in harm’s way. Stubborn refusal to accept the status of mediocrity bestowed upon his Irish team.
Sexton knows that failure is how almost every sporting life concludes. Until such a time – and there is no end in sight despite an Irish predilection to prematurely retire our sporting heroes – the 35-year-old intends to mould the James Ryan generation into champions despite an ever increasing din of former captains and teammates.
Come Saturday night Sexton had softened his ‘I-know-the-media-is-not-aligned-but-we-are-on-the-right-path’ narrative. He also knows that “alignment” is hardly the best ethical practice of any fourth estate. He made sure to mention the work being done behind the scenes by assistant coaches. You see, he understands the power of media messaging. Others do not. He can be emotional, which always delivers strong quotes, but get him talking post-match or, in this instance, at the end of an insanely challenging first year under Andy Farrell, and just listen.
2020 has been poor by the standards his Ireland teams have strived towards since 2009.
“Obviously, us as a team, we are not at the top table,” Sexton conceded after the latest dismissal of Scotland, “yet.”
Occasionally he throws out the three-from-five-wins in the Six Nations is an acceptable return but knowing Ireland’s progress during his career, Sexton knows better than anyone that the old days of boot and bollock are no longer a valid reference point.
We know he doesn’t believe this. We know because when prodded - just a little - Sexton leans into the unvarnished truth.
“We haven’t been able to beat France and England away from home and that is what the top teams are able to do.
“We are just below that at the moment but I am confident in this team and the coaching staff that we can go to that level. Hopefully in February we will be able to get there.”
We are not sure he fully believes this, yet. Like in 2018, he probably needs tangible evidence. February victories over Wales in Cardiff and France in Dublin would deliver the surging confidence his Paris drop goal injected into the collective blood stream three years ago.
He wants nothing more than to regain Ireland’s seat at the top table in this small colonial world of international rugby. We see that by the way he welcomed each Scottish effort to force him out of Saturday’s contest. They were all at it. A slap here, a belt in the head there, all with the direct intention to injure him. Because it is not that difficult to remove Jonathan Sexton. The long fellow will give you his arched back to wallop when attempting a full frontal tackle on a charging rhino. James Ritchie almost damaged him beyond repair in those early exchanges.
Sexton knows this year’s results were unacceptable as much as they provided an unavoidable realism. ‘You-don’t-see-the-improvements-we-are-making-at-training’ argument quelled one media uprising but, equally, it ramps up the pressure to turn a substantial corner. Beating Scotland is no chicane.
The only benchmark now is England (Georgia brought an end to Farrell’s straw-clutching about winning second halves) but 2021 promises to be as stressful for Ireland as 2019 and 2020 because it starts against a cornered Wales before France and England visit Dublin.
All three opponents will believe they should win. England have branded the 2018 humiliation of an Irish grand slam on Paddy’s Day in Twickenham so it will linger until Maro Itoje glides into rugby’s afterlife.
But maybe – it was put to Sexton – the issue he has with the media lacerating his captaincy and the Farrell coaching ticket is legitimate because the benchmark of 2018 has become an unrealistic, even unfair expectation?
“No,” Sexton responded. “We are judging ourselves by the highest of standards. We wish we beat England and France away. We learned some valuable lessons, some harsh lessons from those big games away from home.
“We felt the Six Nations trophy was there for the taking. We will live with that forever.
“We are happy with the way we are improving. I admit we haven’t showed it in a full 80 minute performance. We didn’t show it over 80 minutes tonight. It is Test match rugby; you can’t turn up and have it all your own way. It is hard, it is different to any type of rugby out there, and I am including the Champions Cup in that.”
But Ireland have had it all their own way. We’ve all seen them outfox English, French and Kiwi goliaths. But for every Garry Ringrose that returns, another Tadhg Furlong or Joey Carbery will disappear from view. Toulouse, Montpellier and Racing 92 will see to that this weekend.
What we have learned from recent autobiographies is the previous generation – the leading lights inside the squad – were far too obsessed with their own image and what mark out of 10 some second rate reporter gave them on the whistle. Inadvertently, these half-truths revealed a cultural weakness in the squad that, presumably, Farrell and Sexton, allied with Mick Kearney and Gary Keegan, will iron out.
Sexton uses media chiding as motivation. He says as much in cranky dispatches that we are lucky to have (the usual middle class athlete tends to be a terrible bore) but eventually – if you ask the right questions – the captain will give it to you straight.
“There is no one who hurts more than us when we don’t perform on the big days. But it is what you take away from it. There are some young guys who played (at Twickenham) that day that will take a huge amount from it.”
He speaks about the “incredible” Caelan Doris and towering James Ryan, allied with Andrew Porter and Ronán Kelleher. That is Ireland’s officer class now.
There is scant evidence that this generation will surpass the class of 2009 or return to the heady heights of 2018. David Nucifora irreverently failed last week to convince anyone that a masterplan exists for the Farrell era to exceed the achievements of the Schmidt decade.
All of the above have backed themselves into the corner of needing a successful 2021 Six Nations. Some of them don’t seem to care. But Sexton does. That we know.