Sexton out to make his point on return to director’s chair
EVEN with the minimum of changes to the Irish side that flopped in Wellington, yesterday’s team announcement was still freighted with interest for the bar stool enthusiasts.
Even if the participants in the great out-half debate are weary of the conjecture, it remains a source of intrigue for Irish supporters.
That Jonny Sexton gets the nod allows him the opportunity to wipe the slate clean after his personal World Cup despair, as well as seeking to set down a marker in his personal duel with Ronan O’Gara in this year’s championship.
“I didn’t really have a particularly sleepless night, no,” he says laconically. “I’m just delighted to be named. I’m sure everyone will still be sitting on their bar stools talking about it but we won’t mind that.”
A vote of confidence in his form with a Leinster side where he has seemed to be more at ease under the positive influence of Joe Schmidt, Sexton wouldn’t be human if he felt he had a particular point to prove to Declan Kidney and detractors alike.
“Well, that’s the type of people we have in the squad,” he says, generalising before turning the focus inwards. “Yeah, there are points to prove. There’ll be a little bit of motivation there but it won’t be everything. It’s about getting the performance right.
“If motivation was a factor, it might work for five or 10 minutes, then you don’t think about it for the rest of the game. It’s not going to win or lose the game for us. It’s about executing the game plan better than we did before.”
So essentially you have to cast aside thoughts of personal motivation?
“Yeah, exactly.” Nevertheless, recent experiences in green indicate that cometh the hour, cometh the replacement out-half and, aside from being guaranteed the No 10 jersey in perpetuity, Sexton must deal mentally with this reality.
“I wish my place was guaranteed,” he laughs. “Obviously with Ireland, there’s a little bit more looking over your shoulder with Ronan on the bench. It’s something you have to get used to, knowing somebody is ready to come on if things aren’t going your way.
“It’s probably something that I’ve struggled with a little bit. But you learn a lot with setbacks. Hopefully I’ll not be as bogged down about it. I can play my own game and try to do the best for the team.
“I’ve come off after 60 minutes when I’ve been playing well for Ireland. Declan’s the man in charge and if he sees fit to mix and match, then that’s up to him. If he wants to bring on Ronan for the last 20 minutes, or last half-hour or the whole second-half, then he can.
“I’ve just got to make the most of my time on the pitch. Sometimes you feel like you just want to go out and put it all in the first 50 minutes. But you have to think about the team.”
While Wellington haunts many of his team-mates, curiously it is the Auckland victory against Australia, when he was again hauled off late in the piece, that clearly still jars with Sexton.
“I place-kicked poorly in a couple of games at the World Cup. That can happen to any place-kicker. Unfortunately it happened to me on the world stage in the two biggest games of my career. That’s life. You move on from it. I’ve been happy this season.
“I beat myself up a bit at the time. Even against Australia, I nailed one straight after half-time. Then there was another good kick which hit the post.
“Who knows what might have happened had that gone over? I could have kept kicking until the end and we would never have been talking about this. But those are the small margins.
“It still doesn’t sit well with me that it happened then on the world stage, something I’d been building up towards for a couple of years. “It still hurts now but I’ve tried to move on.
Hopefully I’ll be there again to put it right. Now I want to play in the Six Nations and do well.” Lessons are always being learned. Last season, he barely kicked at all in the opening two games of the tournament and was jettisoned by round three. He won’t be fooled again.
“It’s learning when to slow the game down, when to put the ball in the corner – putting the forwards on the front foot is important. Last year we had a mindset of playing with the ball in hand. “But at times we probably got carried away. I remember the French game. Everything was going brilliantly for the first 20 minutes, we were creating chances.
“Maybe that was the time to slow it down and give the forwards a breather. We started making mistakes and the flow of the game then started going against us. Maybe that was the time to slow it.”
Sexton could be talking about himself when he refers to the Irish attitude heading into this crucial game. “It’s not really about bringing a different game-plan,” he says.
“It’s just improving the existing one."