Friday 20 April 2018

'How do I put this nicely... at times you're driven demented with him!' - Johnny Sexton on 'incredible' Joe Schmidt

Peerless Ireland playmaker finally takes deserved place in Grand Slam pantheon

Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He comes to us ceremonially late, the drill-sergeant behind this march on the English temple. Jonathan Sexton in the mixed-zone.

Print journalists swarm him like a retinue of courtiers and he is in mid-sentence when a French TV reporter interjects at the back, seeking reassurance that Sexton will be doing broadcast interviews too. "No," says the IRFU media man. "Just this."

Aghast, the Frenchman splutters: "But he is the superstar!"

It is a protest met with a smile of the coldest marble. "I know," says the media man. "That's why!"

Our good days have, for so long, been immutably linked to Sexton's game direction, it seems strange that this now registers as his first Triple Crown, let alone Grand Slam. He tells a story to illustrate the point.

A team meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel prior to the 2010 Six Nations meeting with Scotland at Croke Park (Ireland having already beaten England and Wales), Declan Kidney intent upon communicating Ireland's historic difficulty in securing Triple Crowns. Trouble was, they'd won four in the previous six seasons as well as the 2009 Grand Slam, which meant he was talking now to a mildly jaundiced audience.

"I think I turned around and saw Ronan and Paul and Brian sort of throwing their eyes up to Heaven," Sexton grins.

"They had five or six of them at that stage. Definitely, at that point of my career, I probably didn't think I'd still be trying to win one all these years later."

To some of us, this day feels an anachronism. Even those of us who were in Twickenham on 'Ginger' McLoughlin's day, on Simon Geoghegan's, on Girvan Dempsey's or on that other perfect St Patrick's weekend when Shane Horgan touched down with an untrimmed fingernail, we knew what it was to see Ireland win here, just not to dominate.

But England watched this one through the cracks in their fingers. They sang to their Queen like a country going to war but soon enough found themselves silenced by the drone of bombers overhead. The first, just six minutes in, came from Sexton's boot, a treacherously angled Garryowen leaving Anthony Watson to try cellotaping paper over windows. That would be the starting point, Rob Kearney collecting the poor English full-back like a passport stamp and Garry Ringrose touching down.

In that single moment, every ounce of England's grand intent was exposed as bluster. And Sexton played peekaboo with them 18 minutes later, feigning to run that familiar wrap-around only for Tadhg Furlong to pop Bundee Aki into open country, every last pebble of the white masonry rolling towards Ireland's number ten.

CJ Stander got that touchdown and, soon enough, Sexton's nose was a fountain of claret.

Medical protocol over-rode his protests - "I don't need to go off" - and he spent the last ten minutes of that half pacing Ireland's dressing-room, complaining of the cold. Ireland led by 16 points now, but Sexton's suspicion was that they might need more.

"You never feel in control playing in Twickenham," he reflects now. "You just feel if they get a try here, you could come under serious pressure. They're not back-to-back champions and Grand Slam champions themselves for nothing."

But that was the curious thing. Ireland always looked in control. Not just behind the splintering furniture of the pack war, but everywhere. Between the wings, in the coaches' boxes, across the stands (sporadic outbreaks of 'Swing Low' beginning to sound mildly self-mocking).

The game became everything that Sexton dared not imagine beforehand.

"You know it's been a weird week," he sighs. "It's been horrible in many ways. A tough build-up. People were talking about trying to enjoy it, but I found it very tough to enjoy the build-up. It was nerve-wracking at times so just delighted to get the other side of it.

"I think we saved our best performance for last, which was always the plan. To keep building through the campaign."

Actually, he takes us deeper into that plan. Before going to Paris, some of them briefly decommissioned that team-room buzzword "process". A few of the elder statesmen specifically, like Rory Best, Keith Earls, like Sexton himself and the gloriously revitalised Kearney, openly declaring a Slam to be their intention this year. Then they respectfully parked the thought.

And, of course, France almost made them choke on it.

In rugby folklore, that day in Stade de France will be remembered as the day of the 41 phases. But it might more accurately be recalled as Sexton's ascent to the gods of the game. From that restart to that nerveless cross-kick to that drop-goal, his signature was on three moments of world-class execution in as many minutes.

As England captain, Dylan Hartley, surmised on Saturday: "Ireland have earned their title this year, but that last-minute drop-goal in Paris really set them up."

True, but they'd been seconds away from a result that would have been tantamount to self-harm too.

So everything in this campaign flowed on the back of Sexton's incorrigibility under extreme pressure. Maybe it's something that Joe Schmidt's holistic coaching engenders, self-sufficiency at the clutch moments. Composure under stress. The English players noticed it in Ireland on Saturday. That this was a team for whom attention to detail has become a flak jacket against doubt.

Schmidt's glory?

"Yeah, he keeps you on your toes," smiles Sexton. "He... ah... how do I put this nicely... you know at times during the week you're driven demented with him. But then you know that he's doing it for a reason, putting pressure on you in training and meetings to make sure that on Saturday every box is ticked and all the prep is done.

"Yeah, he's an incredible coach. Like his record with Irish teams speaks for itself. You know he was three years in Leinster and got to six finals. Five years now with Ireland and we've won three championships and a Grand Slam. Obviously the World Cup didn't go to plan and there's lots of reasons why it didn't. But hopefully we can have a good crack at the next one."

He will seem positively venerable to some of this group when that tournament comes around in Japan. Seven of the current Irish squad have yet to experience defeat in a green jersey. And Sexton sees a parallel there with the younger breed who brought such energy to '09.

"We spoke about that at the start of the campaign," he acknowledges. "We said that in '09 there was four or five guys that came into that squad and freshened things up, you know kept guys on their toes and brought this sort of fearlessness. This time we couldn't have done it without Jordan Larmour, Garry [Ringrose] you know these young guys, Joey [Carbery], you know they've been exceptional.

"Like Dan Leavy's performance today was incredible. James Ryan. I hate the fact that they're all from Michael's, that drives me absolutely crazy! I wish a few more were coming out of Mary's. But look they are exceptional rugby players and people and hopefully they can keep their feet on the ground and keep having success going forward."

He mentions too those contemporaries like Jamie Heaslip, Kevin McLaughlin and Luke Fitzgerald for whom injury drew down an early curtain on their careers. He says he got "some very special texts from different people that I played with over the years."

And, just as Eddie Jones has taken to lamenting the poor "leadership density" within the England camp, it looks as if Ireland could stock the whole of Europe.

"I think that's what makes this campaign so special," says Sexton. "How so many new guys came in. I think you have to give so much credit to the coaching staff that...you know to lose that calibre of back-rowers... there's four guys who are injured that weren't part of this but who've been a huge part of this team over the last few years.

"And they're not here.

"Then to lose Robbie [Henshaw] who's a massive player for us, you know guys just kept filling in. Garry came in, hadn't played a lot of rugby this season, and his two performances were incredible. It just seemed to sort of fit this year. You know we had answers for everything!"

As Sexton prepares his return to the dressing-room party, a female journalist from 'l'équipe' is looking for a quick word. The media chap says no, but Sexton overrules him, too much a gentleman to walk past. And there he lingers briefly, chronicling this beautiful day in impressively fluent French.

We leave them to it, half-wondering if he might volunteer to fly tomorrow's plane home in the blizzard.

Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport