Veteran Johnny Sexton still motivated by biggest challenges

Ireland captain and outhalf relishes the pressure of his 12th Six Nations campaign

Johnny Sexton has declared himself fit and ready for Ireland’s 2021 Guinness Six Nations opening game against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday. Video: VOTN

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As Johnny Sexton approaches his 12th Six Nations you might imagine that he has learned to cope with the accompanying pressures and nerves. With age and experience, they say, comes wisdom and all that. They say.

Needles to say, not a bit of it. Nearing the opener away to Wales on Sunday (kick-off 3pm, BBC and Virgin Media) it’s the same as it ever was.

“No it definitely hasn’t changed,” said Sexton yesterday with a wry, knowing smile. “I was only thinking it myself today when I was practicing my kicking: ‘How has this not gotten easier?’ In many ways it’s gotten worse.

“But it’s what’s great about the Six Nations, isn’t it? It’s great. The hype, the interest, the pressure that you put on yourselves to try achieve for your country, it’s what we’ll miss when we finish I think. So it’s trying to, in a weird way, enjoy it. It is tough going at times, but it’s definitely not getting easier.”

The smile turns to a laugh when you wonder if his personality has changed in that time.

“It depends what day you ask me, what side of the bed I get out of it,” he admitted with, perhaps, a self-deprecating nod to the public perception of him. “I’d like to think I’ve changed for the better, but sometimes you slip into old habits. But look, ask one of my teammates, they’d be a better barometer.”

Then again, there’d be something missing if Sexton didn’t have the same desire and drive which is an innate part of his persona. Besides which, there’s the added weight that comes with captaincy.

“I think the pressure probably does go up a gear with the responsibilities that you have; the extra things that you need to cope with during the week in terms of the extra media commitments, dealing with other squad [members], guys that are selected, guys who aren’t selected, and making sure the team is prepared well.

“When you’re not a captain you don’t have to worry about a lot of those things. You can just concentrate on yourself. It does bring a little bit more pressure but I do enjoy it and I’d hate not to be doing it is probably the right way to be putting it. So, it’s just about trying to enjoy it. It’s easier said than done.”

Now in one-year-at-a-time mode, and expected to sign up with Leinster and Ireland for another 12 months, Sexton added: “At the end of the day, when we all finish up at some stage, these are the days we’re going to miss and we’ll miss the pressure, we’ll miss the nerves and we’ll miss that level of adrenaline it gives you in your preparation.

“I think the nerves drive you to do that little bit more in practice or to do that little bit extra that makes a difference. Try and harness it in the right way.”

Drawing on the experience of Ireland’s three previous visits Six Nations to Cardiff, and he confirmed that he trained fully with the squad yesterday after overcoming his hamstring tweak against Munster last Saturday week, Sexton has learned one thing above all else. A good start is essential.

Head start

Noting how Ireland fell on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes there in 2015 to trail 12-0 inside 15 minutes and Angus Gardner in 2019 when 16-0 down at the break, the task was to ensure “we’re up for the game obviously but that we’re not over the edge and giving away stupid penalties to allow them into the game and to get a head start, because Test rugby is tough enough as it when it’s 0-0, never mind when you’re giving teams a huge start.”

A good opening weekend has also generally been one of the ingredients in a successful campaign.

“We’ve had campaigns and there’s always something that clicks. Whether that’s a new player or a few fresh faces coming in that gives everyone a new impetus or lease of life, whatever you want to call it. It could be a new person on the coaching staff or someone in the backroom team can make a huge difference to communication. That’s often been the case over the years.”

Even then, the margins are small.

“You go back to 2018, if we didn’t do what we did in the last five minutes that never happens and we’re still talking about it,” he said in reference to that Houdini-like opening day act of escapism in Paris which launched the Grand Slam.

“That could easily have gone another way and sometimes it is the bounce of a ball, a score going your way or not going your way that can make a huge difference. So it’s a little bit of luck, but sometimes you make your own luck as well.”

Whatever Sexton and his team-mates were saying in private back in 2018, once more they have not been shouting from the rooftops publicly. Contrast that with the more bullish pre-2019 World Cup utterings, and it perhaps doesn’t sit well with the Irish psyche. Eddie Jones declaring with typical bravura that he wants this to be the best English team ever somehow suits them better.

“They’re at a different stage,” reasoned Sexton. “They’re [Six Nations] champions, they’re World Cup finalists. They are statements that we can make in a couple of years. I might not be here when we’re making them, but you can’t be saying those things if you’re not even Six Nations champions, you know? Because people would just laugh at you.

“We need to go and win a championship before we can start talking about becoming the greatest Irish side out there, you know what I mean? It’s step by step. We’re not there yet but yeah, fair play to them for doing that.”

Besides, as he concluded: “We don’t play them for a long time.”

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