Sexton has spring back in his step and Wales firmly in his sights
‘I don’t know if Wales feel like they are invincible. They are saying they have forgotten how to lose’
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton goes over to score a try in the Six Nations game against France. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
On the verge of a 14th successive Test win; coach Warren Gatland’s final Six Nations match; the heavy flirtation of a Grand Slam. Motivation this week precedes Wales as Ireland segue from a busted flush to a team with a strong enough hand not to arrive in Cardiff bluffing.
“Very pleasing and it was good to sort of turn the corner,” says Johnny Sexton, frustration no longer part of his week’s mood music.
If Sexton’s disposition is readable, it is a spring bloom of rediscovered morale. The February stew of befuddlement has lifted. Ireland are back in a place they recognise as familiar ground, even if he admits there is an aspect of work in progress. But it is adjustment more than renovation. The blind rage has left Ireland’s outhalf.
“There are still parts of the game that we want to improve on, and that we will need to improve on, this weekend.
“Honestly, there was nothing majorly broken in the first few games. There was just some uncharacteristic errors from some individuals and some break downs in just a couple of things. That just adds up and if everyone makes a couple of mistakes then suddenly you have 30 errors and you are in a bit of trouble.
“We speak about the margins. Take me for example, You want to kick it 10 metres from the restart and if you kick it nine-and-a-half there is an error but you are not too far off kicking a good one. Kick it out on the full by half-a-yard and you’re only half-a-yard from getting it right and you’re not too far away from getting it right and that proved to be the case.”
He says he’s queasy about the notion of a momentum swing in Ireland’s favour, drawing a halt on any runaway train theories, his caution well founded. The team might be out of rugby ICU but Joe Schmidt has never won a Six Nations match in Cardiff.
Ireland perfected the destruction of English hopes in 2017. Pulling down their house in Dublin in the final match of the series to deny them a Grand Slam demonstrated the point that taking hold of the trophy at its closest is sometimes the most difficult part, a lurch and a fumble ending.
But that consideration is strictly Welsh domain, psychology for Gatland to tend. It’s a place Sexton has no interest in going. He says Wales always have pressure to win. His Lions tours and rooming with Welsh players has taught him something of their cultural disposition.
His thoughts always return to causing mischief with Ireland. And while it may have taken four matches, Irish rugby’s weather vane is no longer spinning.
“I don’t know if Wales feel like they are invincible,” he says. “They are saying they have forgotten how to lose and all that. They have had some results. We’ve played well against teams that have been on runs before when you talk about England, New Zealand and stopping their runs.
“Again we’ll give them the respect they absolutely deserve. We’ll analyse them, we’ll talk about where we can get at them. We’ll talk about where they are very strong.
“They look pretty tough to break down. Defensively against England they put up a wall and met England head on. I think when they play at home they play even better. How can you not when you have 70,000 Welsh fans going crazy and they are inspired by that.”
Sexton knows it takes more than inspiration and whether fullback Liam Williams, who went off with what appeared a serious injury last weekend, is fit or not, Wales have quality across the pitch. Almost every position is a viable head to head.
“Their kicking game is excellent,” he says. “Their aerial game is excellent. They have a lot of strengths and we have got to make sure our game is at their level. We’ll come up with a plan. I don’t think we’ll talk very much about the psychology of them or anything like that.”
He is likely to face Gareth Anscombe at pivot. Dan Biggar came on as an impact player against England and transformed Wales. The feeling is that Gatland will stick rather than twist.
For Sexton, Biggar or Anscombe, Anscombe or Biggar is ho hum. He bookended this week with a first try in 30 Test matches, his last one against Canada in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, pleasingly in Cardiff. If piseogs were his thing, candles would burn for that deliverance of a merciful omen. But his try was, he confesses, a training ground move they have been dusting down the past three years.
“I think they are going to kick long and chase hard,” he says.
The Irish hand, he is holding close to his chest.