New captain and new coach give Ireland a fresh Six Nations outlook
Johnny Sexton says he wants to play as long as possible as he takes over captain’s mantle
Expectations that Japan 2019 was Johnny Sexton’s last World Cup may yet prove premature. The 34-year-old can always look to Tom Brady as well as Roger Federer for inspiration, and after the disappointments of his first World Cup quarter-final last October in mind, the newly installed Irish captain has no intention of putting retirement plans into place just yet.
One more Lions tour to South Africa next year is a very real goal, and France 2023 may be as well.
“I’ve talked about how I want to play as long as I can because I love what I do,” said Sexton at yesterday’s 2020 Guinness Six Nations launch in London’s East End. “I wouldn’t change it for anything, maybe for being a golfer but other than that. I love being in the sport, I love everything that goes with it and I want to play for as long as possible.
“But you can be 24, sat here and wanting to play until you’re 35 or 36 but you could be finished tomorrow, you don’t know, so there’s no point in me continuing to talk about it. I’ve just got to enjoy this Six Nations campaign.
“I’m here next year once injury doesn’t stop me and I’ll just continue to build season on season and try to produce the goods, keep the mind good and body good and I don’t see why not. But there are other people who have a lot to do with it as well.
“But the day that guys in the game that I respect say ‘look, I think you’ve had enough’ I’ll listen and I’ll go. I’ll go kicking and screaming but I’ll go,” admitted Sexton wryly, to which Andy Farrell alongside him gave a knowing chuckle.
“A lot has to happen,” said Sexton.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Sexton’s motivational juices will have been further whetted by being appointed captain of his country for the first time, something he considers to be the ultimate honour.
Now in his second season as Leinster captain, Sexton said of his role: “I’ve tried to get better. Leadership is the same as any other part of my game, I’ve had to get better over the years. I’ve had to change, I’ve had to adapt to being an older guy in the squad. I’ve still got that drive in me but how I portray that to other people is more important than it was before.
“I’ve had to get better and change and I hope I’ve done that, I’ve learned some good lessons with Leinster over three seasons when I started having captaincy responsibilities with Isa (Nacewa) and then after Isa. I learned a lot off the captains I played under and I’ll try to take bits off them but it’s important I’m myself. You’ve got to try to be true to yourself and that’s what I’ll try to do but I will try to get better. I’ll try to do that with every part of my game until I retire.”
With captaincy comes more responsibilities off the pitch, including more regular dealings with the media at events such as yesterday’s, but this is something he has always acquitted himself ably, simply by dint of answering questions thoughtfully and honestly.
“I’ve never found it a chore or difficult to do. I broke through at 20 so you get used to it. Obviously today is the biggest scale I’ve ever done. I don’t think you’ll ever get used to today and thankfully it’s only once a year,” he said with a broad smile.
“There’s obviously extra responsibility in terms of extra meetings with Faz (Andy Farrell), in terms of how the group is getting on, extra meetings with the leadership group, trying to get to the other players and see what they think. But I enjoy all of that. It will be extra responsibility but I won’t find it too difficult.”
Farrell stressed that “there’s no agenda, honestly,” in merely appointing Sexton as captain for this one campaign, nor was Sexton’s age a factor.
Sexton’s predecessor, Rory Best, had suggested the players, and especially the leadership group, allowed World Cup quarter-final week to become too coach-driven, comments which were interpreted as a critique of Joe Schmidt.
“I spoke to Rory about that and I think an element of that was him trying to put it on himself, him trying to say that he maybe got it a little bit wrong,” said Sexton. “We spoke about that, we wanted to be more … not that it wasn’t player-driven in the past but that we wanted it to be even more player-driven.
“That’s being driven by Faz, he wants us to do it together, for the team to be accountable to each other,” he added, which was akin to Leinster.
“We had a strong voice before but I think those comments probably got blown out of proportion with the IRFU review at the same time. What I think he was trying to do there was say the leadership group needed to do more. I know it got pointed at Joe but that wasn’t the intention of Rory, I don’t think.”
This Six Nations will also mark a first as Ireland’s attack coach for Mike Catt, whom Farrell described as “and ideas man” who will challenge him.
Sexton has had a few meetings with Catt and revealed: “He called over to meet me and I told my wife I’d meet him for 20 minutes or half an hour. And about two hours later she sent me a sneaky text to say ‘your dinner is ready, tell Mike to leave’.”
At which point Farrell joked: “I’ll tell him that.”
But, as Sexton said, by his own admission Catt could talk about rugby all day long. “He’s just excited and passionate about bringing our attack forward and he’s got some pretty good ideas. Yeah, contagious energy really.”
The other five have their say
Eddie Jones’ main bugbearer gong into the tournament is the slowness of ruck ball in the game currently. “I’m sure some of the other coaches might have other views. They might like it slow. I think we need to get some consistency in the way the tackle is being refereed because teams need to have the ability to play fast and at the moment it’s very difficult.”
Approaching his first campaign as the French coach, Fabien Galthie vowed: “Our ambition is to make the French public want to support us, to fill the Stade de France and to live the games with as much passion as we want to live in them. We want to share the emotions with them. Our story is very much a love story with the French public.”
Wayne Pivac has replaced Warren Gatland after 12 bountiful years and said: “Clearly the boys have had a very good defence, obviously they’ve had some ball to play, been the best disciplined side in the competition. So we’re trying to add value to the attack and try to evolve that over a period of time, just to give ourselves a little bit more weaponry.”
Franco Smith has replaced Conor O’Shea and said: “From the start we want to be the best that we can be and it’s going to be difficult to say we want to three games. Of course we want to win five but we must be realistic in our approach. All other teams are going to start new processes and we also have to follow a new process. I’m excited that the level of skill sets is really, really high.”
The newly appointed Scottish captain Stuart Hogg said: “We’re going to be away from our families for the next seven or eight weeks so we need to become a family off the field, we need to be strong, we need to be tight but we need to be having fun as well. I’m a ball of energy on and off the field, and I want to try to get the best our of everybody and every opportunity.”