Johnny Sexton: ‘We kept pounding away and we got our rewards’

Andy Farrell praises his side and Aviva crowd for ‘unbelievably special’ occasion

Ireland rugby captain Johnny Sexton spoke of pride in his teammates when he addressed the post match press conference following their defeat of New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium. Video: IRFU / Irish Rugby TV

The win was every bit as good as Chicago and here at the Aviva three years ago, and had the All Blacks somehow conjured another Houdini-like act of escapology, a defeat would have been every bit as heartbreaking. But this Ireland team weren’t going to lose wondering.

The performance had elements of them all and especially akin to Chicago, there was an ambitious pursuit of tries throughout. In particular, there must have been some gnashing of teeth around the land as the captain and his lieutenants repeatedly turned down kickable penalties at goal by going to the corner in search of five- or seven-pointers.

"Very, very proud, very proud of one to 23," said Johnny Sexton in the aftermath of this momentous and deserved 29-20 win.

“I thought we played some great stuff in the first half. I don’t know how we went in 10-5 down at half-time. We were brave with some of our calls. In hindsight maybe that first penalty we should have taken three but they had a player in the sin-bin and I thought let’s have a go.


“They were accumulating penalties and so we just said ‘let’s go again because another penalty and they get a sin-bin’.

“We weren’t clinical in the first half but then, fair play. This team has worked a hell of a lot on our mental side of the game so to bounce back and come again was testament to the management and leadership group and the players themselves to come back and be clinical in the second half.

“Because previously, we would have said ‘Ah, we didn’t take our chances’ and we would have . . . not given up but we would have put the heads down a bit. But we kept pounding away and we got our rewards.”

Those two previous wins over the All Blacks would have instilled a belief that they could do so again, as would the six-match winning run which Ireland took into this fixture.

Caelan Doris runs away from the New Zealand defence to score Ireland’s third try during the game against New Zealand. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

But, according to Sexton, it came from somewhere else.

“Belief comes from looking across and making sure you can trust your team-mates to prepare well and show up on the big day. That’s where belief comes from.

"We didn't have that because we hadn't done that consistently enough as a team last year. Six Nations, we had a tough start but we've won seven on the bounce now so there is that belief now that if we can play our best, then we can get good results.

“That belief is there now but last week, was it there 100 per cent? No, we’ve got to get it out here and show we can play well and see what we can do. As Faz [Andy Farrell] said, it’s making sure you do all the things you have to do and then the results will look after themselves.”

Critically, as in those three aforementioned meetings with the All Blacks, Ireland won the key early moments, when last-ditch defending by James Lowe, Andrew Conway and Garry Ringrose denied the All Blacks the opening try before Ireland manufactured a brilliant try for Lowe.

Describing the occasion as “unbelievably special”, Farrell reiterated his pre-match declaration that Ireland wanted to bring the crowd into the game early on.

“We talked about it in the week, how we’d get the crowd in the game just by sticking to the process. The crowd were certainly behind us, certainly in the last 10 minutes, just dragging us through. The boys created that with their play. It’s a big day isn’t it with a full crowd back.”

On reflection, Farrell conceded that last week’s landmarks, notably Sexton’s 100th cap and Tadhg Furlong’s 50th, had “subconsciously helped us”.

"It was a big week last week with 100 caps [for Sexton], 50th cap for Tadhg and a first for Dan Sheehan. They worked unbelievably hard to get us back up to speed and they took ownership of that very early and it made this week a lot easier because of that."

More than anything, Farrell believed the win was founded on his players never flinching or as he put it “just being ourselves” and “doing what we said we’d do and fully understanding how we were going to go about it and trusting ourselves to play how we intended to play”.

“That’s it in a nutshell really. I thought we were composed enough to not get distracted along the way and play the game that we wanted to play.”

Not everything has to be judged on the prism of a World Cup every four years. No less than Chicago or 2018 here, this win underlines the point. Yet this cannot be a peak either, as perhaps 2018 turned out to be.

“We’ve already identified that this is the start of a two-year journey and we’ve said that,” said Sexton. “This is the start and it’s important that we continually improve.

“Obviously, this being a peak is no good to anybody. I think there is room for improvement individually. There’s room for improvement from that first half, doing things to make sure we take our chances because we could have scored a few tries in the first half that would have counted.

“There’s lot of room for improvement – we need to keep our feet on the ground and keep driving this. There’s a lot of young guys, very young, a lot younger than me, and they need to realise that this is still a start and we need to keep building.

“The great thing about beating New Zealand is that it gives a lift to the country but you don’t win a trophy and you don’t have something to show for it, as such. As happy as we are, we need to push on.”