The most enjoyable environments are when you win, says Sexton

‘Things just click with time ... and now it’s about figuring out ways we can try to improve’

Johnny Sexton will always have Paris. Be it le drop in 2018 en route to the Grand Slam, or his two-try performance in the nerve-jangling 2014 finale which Ireland won 22-20 to complete the Six Nations title in Brian O'Driscoll's farewell Test.

Not surprisingly, if he had to pick a favourite, Sexton would opt for the latter, even if he was knocked out cold when trying to stop Mathieu Bastareaud and was replaced 12 minutes from time.

“Anytime you win a trophy it is incredibly special. Even though my memory of it was a little bit – Bastareaud got to me a couple of times – I just think anytime you lift the trophy you will remember that game more fondly.”

He was a replacement in the defeat there in 2010 when just 24 and winning his third cap, and in five subsequent starts in Stade de France, he’s had two wins, a draw and two defeats, while his overall record in 11 starts against les bleus is six wins, four defeats and a draw. Considering Ireland only beat France once between 1975 and 2000, and have beaten les bleus just three times in Paris over the last 50 years, it shows how the pendulum has swung since the turn of the millennium.

Throw in Sexton’s two-year sojourn to the French capital with Racing 92, and Paris has been a big part of his rugby life.

“Yeah, it has played a big part, definitely. Even with some of the big wins like ’14 and ’18, [there were] some hard lessons as well. I remember coming off the bench in 2010 and what an incredible atmosphere to be in as a youngster, someone trying to get into international rugby, how different it was.

The coaches have challenged me to get better in certain areas. And I enjoy having that freedom to stay in the system and make decisions in it

“It is one of the great places to go in international rugby definitely and Paris, every time I go back there, it is very familiar. Having lived there for two years it brings back some great memories from my time in Racing but also times with Ireland, because it is a very special place to go.”

Saying that Ireland are Sexton-dependent is a bit like observing Barcelona were Lionel Messi-dependent, or even the All Blacks with Dan Carter. That’s the way with generational players. But it seems his new role as the fulcrum, but no longer the entire fulcrum of the attacking pods, has reduced that overt reliance on him to some degree while also rejuvenating him.

“Yeah, the coaches have challenged me to get better in certain areas. And I enjoy having that freedom to stay in the system and make decisions in it. Play what you see and the freedom to go and do that. Things have worked for us. But I was always harping on about it in the last Six Nations. We weren’t too far away.

“Things just click with time. And with getting certain individuals back in the team who make a big difference. And it all comes together. I think it’s just guys getting comfortable because it’s very different to how the provinces play. It takes a bit of getting used to. But I’m loving it, all the boys are loving it too and now it’s about figuring out different ways we can try to improve it.”

For much of 2020 and in the opening defeats of last season's championship, Farrell and especially backs coach Mike Catt came in for some criticism.

“Faz has a huge input on the attack too. Catty looks after the backs and the starter plays and we’ve made huge strides forward in the last season or two in the ownership of that, making sure we’re nailed on.

Even Garry's try, what an amazing try. The stadium just goes crazy. We love it as a team. It's a bonus-point try in the Aviva Stadium

“Andy does a lot of the bigger picture phased stuff and as players, we’re now doing what they’ve asked from us from day one, but we’re just getting better at it. And it’s having the necessary skills to do it as well, forwards being able to catch-pass and be able to go to the line when needed, when to push-pass it, or all those things that you’ve seen.

“They put an onus on us from the start to get to that level and guys are starting to get there now, but it’s not perfect. There are plenty of areas we need to improve on from the Wales game and we know that we’re going to be coming up against much bigger men this week.

“They’re huge, their front five are massive and their backrow are big men as well, and we need to come up with different ways to get the ball moving, and hopefully we can do that.”

Sexton wouldn’t go so far as to say that this was the most enjoyable Irish team he’s played in. “The most enjoyable environments are when you win. That’s because you get the moments after games as well as some of the moments in games that we’ve had recently, they’ll live with you forever. Even Garry’s try, what an amazing try. The stadium just goes crazy. We love it as a team. It’s a bonus-point try in the Aviva Stadium. You love it when you win, and that’s the most important thing when it comes to it.”

This team clearly enjoys defending as well, believing that is as much a statement of their pride in playing for Ireland.

“We’ve been very happy with that part of our game. Again, has it been perfect? No. Do we want it to be perfect? No. We want to always be learning, but I think we’ve tried to make it more aggressive, without giving too much away.

“Hopefully people have seen that, and we need to take it another couple of levels this week against the calibre of player we’re playing against and the quality of their attack. It will be a big challenge for us and a true test of that area of our game.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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