Johnny Sexton: ‘We’re striving for a new level and hopefully we see that the next few weeks’

Outhalf delighted to continue as Ireland captain and continue the ‘learnings’

It's hard to credit, but this weekend's Six Nations opener against Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday effectively marks the second anniversary of Johnny Sexton's tenure as Irish captain.

He had led Ireland once before, against Russia in the World Cup, as well the endgame in the decisive third Test in Australia in June 2018, but the 2020 Six Nations marked his first campaign as captain in succession to Rory Best.

There have been, he admits, some ‘learnings’ and despite 11 wins in 14 games under his captaincy, it is one of the three defeats which springs to mind.

“Yeah, lots; lots of learning,” he admitted on Tuesday with a wry laugh.

“One immediately stands out, I suppose, the trip over to Paris. There were a lot of lessons from that week: before, after and during,” said Sexton regarding the 35-27 defeat by France in October 2020 and the storm over his irate reaction to being subbed.

“But apart from that by and large it’s been a pretty positive experience and I’ve loved it, I loved every second of it. It was a huge honour to be asked to do it and then every time the call comes in before a campaign, you’re always picking up the phone thinking: ‘Is it going to be the good news or the bad news?’ And I’ve managed to keep it and I’m very proud to have done it for as long as I have and I want to keep doing it for as long as I can prove to be the man to do it.”

Looking back on that Paris night, the regrets were plenty.

“We didn’t get our prep right and a huge responsibility for that is down to the captain. We didn’t get our performance right on the day which probably stems from some of the prep and then obviously some of the stuff that was written about the reaction when you come off.

“Like I explained at the time, as much of it was the disappointment with myself that I didn’t play as I wanted to or the team didn’t play as I wanted us to play. But you just can’t let your guard down for a split second or a small mistake like that can be magnified into something huge.

“But it makes you stronger and it makes you more prepared to try and bounce back and prove people wrong.”

While joking that “talking to you guys of course” is one of the perks of the job, he added: “I’ve learned to try not to let it pressure me, to look on it as an honour and a privilege, and something that people would kill to do, and that’s how I look on it. But sometimes when it can get highly pressured . . . I’d never want it to become a burden, that’s what I’m trying to get at, and it hasn’t and I hope it never will.

“I’m sure there will be challenges like there has been before, but when you’ve got good people around you in the management and in the leadership group and in the players, you’ll come out the other side.”

As for how long, nothing has changed. He remains in one-season-at-a-time mode, with the goal being to keep playing well until at least the World Cup, and he'll talk with David Nucifora again after the Six Nations.

“I feel great now, I felt great the last couple of weeks training and the start of the season, but I know that can change. My intention is to keep going as long as I’m fit to do so and as long as I’m enjoying it; as long as the people in here want me to. That’s the most important thing for me as well.

“It couldn’t be further from my thoughts at the moment, because this first game is everything. Other stuff looks after itself.”

Sexton hopes there is more improvement to come from November, albeit there was “plenty of room for improvement” even against New Zealand. “We’re striving for a new level and hopefully we see that the next few weeks.”

Sexton has a losing record against Wales (7-1-8) albeit a winning one in games started (7-1-6), and noted how the rivalry had a slightly nastier element prior to the Lions 2009 tour.

“It just seemed to be a big rivalry earlier and in those days,” he said when asked to explain. “And the guys, I think, when they went on that Lions tour in 2009 they hit it off. Then it became the rivalry that I talked about afterwards. They were very close to the guys but you still don’t want to lose to them. I think that was it. Whereas before 2009 there was a bit of bite in most of those games and that’s all it meant.”

Pausing with a knowing smile, he added: “Although I can see where the headlines are going in Wales.” Another ‘learning’. He saw that one coming.

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