Sexton itching for another shot at the All Blacks on the biggest stage of all
'People expect kicks to go over. The misses make you stronger. They make you practise more'
Extract from 'The New Breed: Irish Rugby's First Professionals' by Patrick McCarry, published by Mercier Press
'Everything happens for a reason," Sexton tells me as he drives through Paris. "At times I've had really good runs as first choice. I made Leinster schools when I was in fifth year, but missed out on Irish schools [team] and the under 19s when I was in sixth year. I played Ireland under 21s during my first year out of school, and started with Leinster the year after. There have been times when I've had it tough. I had to sit behind Felipe Contepomi, and would have been quite ambitious at the time. I had to learn patience and, looking back, I learned so much from him and from biding my time."
Sexton and Ronan O'Gara tussled over the Ireland No 10 jersey for two seasons before Declan Kidney opted for the younger outhalf. Few doubted O'Gara's kicking capabilities, but Sexton brought an incisive, running dynamic to the backline and got the nod. That season saw him claim his third Heineken Cup with Leinster, but the following 12 months changed everything. By July 2013 he was still Ireland's starting outhalf, but he was also a Test series winner with the British and Irish Lions and a member of Racing Métro's Top 14 squad. In hindsight, it seemed as though Sexton would always be Warren Gatland's Lions outhalf in Australia. The Irishman was not so sure.
"I had just signed the Racing contract, and had a bad hamstring injury against England. I had only played one full game, against Wales, in the Six Nations. I was happy with that performance, but in my head I thought I had to get back for the final games. I worked my arse off to get my hamstring right. I worked with Mike Carswell, my physio in Dublin, every day, and made some trips down to Limerick to Ger Hartmann. I needed to tick all the boxes to get back, and I did. Then, the day before the Italy game, I twisted my foot in training. It was a big blow. I thought my Lions chances were gone.
"I got back for Leinster and we won the Amlin Cup and the league, but not once before that squad was announced did I think I was a certainty. Owen Farrell was doing well, and Jonny Wilkinson was having another great season in France. It was a great feeling to get the call-up, and a dream come true to head off with the Lions. There was a lot of chopping and changing with the team, but I played all three Tests of a successful Lions tour. Not many people can say that. Still, I always want more. I didn't get the place-kicking duties. Every minute I played, Leigh Halfpenny played. I hope to be the first-choice place-kicker for the next Lions tour to New Zealand."
While some supporters may suggest Sexton's best chance to defeat the All Blacks may arise in a red jersey, he is bitterly aware of the two opportunities that Ireland let slip against the world champions. His 50-metre penalty had dropped a metre short in Christchurch in June 2012, allowing Dan Carter to drop goal New Zealand to a 22-19 win they barely deserved. Eighteen months on and Sexton had a simpler penalty attempt on the All Blacks' 22, ten metres to the right of the posts, that would have put Ireland eight points clear with six minutes to play. Between his placing the ball and sending it towards the uprights, 70 seconds passed. The Kiwis at the Aviva Stadium crowd could only be hushed so long, and a clamour of booing broke out as the kick veered right and wide. Ryan Crotty daggered in an injury-time try and Aaron Cruden's conversion completed a stunning turnaround.
"The way we lost the game was pretty heartbreaking. To be ahead going into injury time and lose . . . it still hurts thinking about it now. I will get another chance down the line. In the World Cup we can only meet them in the quarter-final or final, depending on results. There is no better place to beat them. Hopefully we can learn from that loss and take their scalp."
He adds, "I tore my hamstring against Australia the week before. It was a tough week for me, trying to prove my fitness. I was happy with my performance, but that miss is a big regret. It could have put us two scores clear with six minutes to go. There were reasons behind that miss that I might go into in the future, but I'll leave that to a later date." When pressed, Sexton confirms that his hamstring had flared up earlier in the game. He divulges no more on the "other reasons".
"If I got another chance [against New Zealand] I would have backed myself to get it," he says. He believes being able to shut out the misses and refocus on his game stood to him in the 2014 Six Nations. "I missed a couple of kicks against France, but knew I'd learn through it. I've kicked a lot of big kicks, so it's not the occasion that got to me. I had just missed a kick like every kicker does." He took that attitude into the second half against the French, and scored his second try of the game before adding a vital penalty in the 52nd minute.
The All Blacks miss festered, he admits, and hung like a fog for months. Being over in Paris did not get him away from his own thoughts. "I will have to live with it," he says, "but that's the fickle nature of being a professional sportsman and a kicker."
He continues, "If we held on, made better decisions when we had the ball, didn't make defensive errors, a missed tackle in the corner, then no one would remember the kick. Still, I have to live with the fact that if the kick went over we would've had a better chance to win the game.
"Being the kicker is a thankless job at times. Neil Jenkins has a phrase: 'No one thanks the postman for delivering the letters.' People expect kicks to go over. The misses make you stronger. They make you want to practise more. It has made me a better kicker."
Sunday Indo Sport