Sexton hits all the right notes


Rugby:Jonathan Sexton knows his blossoming friendship with Ronan O’Gara will soon be replaced by enmity, but for the moment Ireland’s rival outhalves are content to celebrate a stunning victory.

England entered the Aviva Stadium on the brink of completing their first Grand Slam since 2003, but departed with a chastening 24-8 defeat directed by Sexton.

The mantra that a special performance was imminent had been repeated throughout a disappointing Six Nations and yesterday Ireland finally delivered in an afternoon of controlled fury. Star turns littered Lansdowne Road but the pick of the them was man of the match Sexton, the 25-year-old engaged in a high-profile duel for selection with O’Gara.

Debate has raged over who should pull the strings with Declan Kidney’s constant tinkering in the position evidence of a coach unsure of his first choice for the World Cup. Sexton, who surely now occupies pole position, admits the intense competition between the two has forged a more intimate bond.

Two years ago a precocious Sexton gave his rival verbals in Leinster’s Heineken Cup semi-final rout of Munster, but yesterday they embraced as Lansdowne Road acclaimed the exit of England’s tormentor in chief with a standing ovation.

“There’s been a lot written about the two of us. We’re good friends now, though we probably didn’t get off to the best starts!” he said. “But what happens on the pitch between Leinster and Munster goes out the window when it comes to Ireland.

“I’m sure we’ll be back killing each other in two weeks time when we play Munster at Thomond Park, but we’re great friends right now building towards the World Cup. We have a good laugh about the talk over who’s the Irish 10. We’re fully aware that when one plays well, the other gets criticised.

“That’s not how it should work, but I’ve learnt a lot in that respect over the last few weeks. You mature from it. There’s a lot of support out there for Ronan and he deserves it after what he’s done for Munster and Irish rugby. I’ll have to put in a few more performances like that to get the support he’s had.”

It has been a championship of fluctuating fortunes for both players, each helping themselves to man of the match awards while consumed by uncertainty over their place in the team.Kidney has been heavily criticised for the revolving door policy that had dire consequences at the Millennium Stadium last weekend.

Ireland were leading a finely poised contest until Sexton replaced O’Gara with half an hour remaining and proceeded to make some conspicuous errors in a game ultimately lost 19-13.

“I was in a good place last week, even though I’d seen a lot of criticism out there about me,” said Sexton. “Against Wales I came on and the first three minutes weren’t minutes to be remembered. But I thought I recovered well and had a good final quarter.

“I did okay when I came on against Scotland as well so I was in a good place, despite everything that was being said. After the French game I was reading too much into what was being said and I literally haven’t watched the TV or opened a paper since. Staying away from it helps.

“Sometimes my girlfriend gives out about what certain people have said and I’ll say, ‘Leave it, I don’t want to hear about it’. It’s all part of it and will continue to be.”

Individual performances in the Ireland side were matched by an overall desire that traumatised England failed to match, a curious shortcoming given they were chasing European rugby’s ultimate prize. Ireland just wanted it so much more.

“Our leaders like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell spoke so well before the game — Declan did as well — about how much it meant to them,” said Sexton. “The young lads really bought into it. It was a great day for everyone, the management too.

“We wanted to play for them because they’ve come in for some harsh criticism. Some of the leaders spoke about this being the start of our World Cup preparation. If we hadn’t played like this there would have been a lot of doubt heading into that tournament.

“We said all along when performances weren’t so good that we weren’t far away from doing something good. In many ways we wanted to back that up. We didn’t want to just keep saying it.”