Thursday 8 December 2016

'I still think about the miss in 2013 a lot' - Johnny Sexton on heartbreaking defeat against All Blacks

Sexton believes he has become better kicker since painful All Blacks defeat

Published 27/10/2016 | 02:30

Sexton against New Zealand in 2013
Sexton against New Zealand in 2013

Johnny Sexton may have nailed five kicks at goal from the exact same spot since, but his crucial late penalty miss in the defeat to New Zealand three years ago is still very much fresh in his memory.

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As the clocked ticked into the 74th minute, Sexton's penalty would have put Ireland 25-17 in front and within touching distance of a famous victory. He missed and the rest is history.

The Ireland out-half didn't shirk the issue then and while he has moved on, he is eager to make amends when Ireland get two shots at history in the next month.

While the miss has never defined Sexton, it is one that understandably still irks him and who could blame him?

Nine times out of ten Sexton would slotted it and the fact that he has done so from the same spot five times since proves that. But this was a pressure situation that hasn't yet been replicated.

Sexton may have felt that it was a 'great strike' but the fact remains that he did take longer standing over the ball than he normally does in his routine.

Hours have been spent on the training ground since and plenty of conversations have also taken place. Sexton has worked closely with kicking specialist Dave Alred, who had a huge influence over Jonny Wilkinson's career, but deep down, he will know that the painful memories aren't likely to be banished unless Ireland get that elusive win over the All Blacks.

"Yeah, I think about it quite a lot," Sexton admits.

Johnny Sexton fulfilling his duties as an Aer Lingus ambassador at Dublin Airport yesterday. Photo credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Johnny Sexton fulfilling his duties as an Aer Lingus ambassador at Dublin Airport yesterday. Photo credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

"Obviously it will be fresher in my mind now but I think I learned a hell of a lot from it. Personally, everyone learned something from that game. 

"I learned why I missed the kick and the funny thing about it was that I had five kicks to go two scores clear from the exact spot, that was bizarre. I got them to go two scores clear the rest of the time.

"Now I wish I could go back and take that one, but you can't. I learned from it and I think I became a better kicker for it. But I would still love to go back and be able to take it again.

"When I kicked the ball I thought it was going over. It was a great strike but it was just a small little block. Why I blocked it out there - that's really what I learned. I talked about it with different guys and it was one tiny little thing that I did. I had a kick to win for Racing from there, I had a kick to go two scores clear in the game against France at the end of that Six Nations (2014) and then there were other ones in games in that spot. 

"It was just bizarre how it worked out, except I got them that time. Like I said, it's just regret really about what would have happened if the kick had gone over.

"They could have scored two tries and it wouldn't have mattered but obviously that hurt missing it. It would have been another step towards beating them.

"We looked at it after the kick went over as well and the amount of mistakes we made that we could have put right, but I can take the flak or criticism.

"It's fine, but hopefully I get another chance at it at some stage."

Despite not taking the place kicks in Montpellier last Sunday, Sexton insists that he will be fit enough to do so in Chicago next weekend.

Ireland have limited time to prepare to play the back-to-back world champions who are coming into the clash on the back of a scintillating Rugby Championship campaign in which they racked up a record-breaking 18th consecutive victory.

Nevertheless, having only played three-and-a-half games (259 minutes) himself this season and as well as the fact that Ireland have just three pitch sessions in Chicago, Sexton is adamant that they will be primed and ready.

"They've lost some of the best players that have ever played the game and it's like they never existed," the 31-year old says.

"They're obviously the best team in the world and they're being talked about as the best team ever. Now, we've got to go and try stop the winning run.

"It would be typical Irish to win your first game against them in Chicago after the few weeks that we've just had. To stop their winning run would be really Irish.

"We've had two small camps and it's been really specific getting us ready to put the plan into place. When the squad is picked we'll meet up, have our walk-throughs and then three pitch sessions, but that's the challenge, isn't it?

"That could be part of the story as well - we only had three pitch sessions and we won."

Ireland's mental strength - an area that the All Blacks pride themselves on - was called into question three years ago and while they have since seen out important games, Sexton is relishing the chance to test themselves against the best again.

The mental anguish still exists for every Irish player who was involved in the 2013 defeat but, for Sexton, the sight of the All Black jersey evokes even more pain.

He has replayed the miss countless times in his head since but if Sexton gets a similar chance in the next month, you wouldn't expect him to make the same mistake twice.

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