Friday 15 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Sexton wise enough to see bigger picture

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

As maybe a dozen reporters squeezed close, there were the beginnings of a grin on Jonathan Sexton's face. He understood the implicit swindle of what was looming now, the great, breezy lie of all this conviviality.

One week on from a catalogue of mishaps in Cardiff, hosannas rained upon him.

Short memories are small blessings in the 'mixed zone' where players step up to makeshift barriers and shoot the breeze with media as if meeting old friends.

We're as forgetful in this precinct as Hunter S Thompson on a lost weekend in Kentucky. It keeps things civil.

Maybe Sexton scrubbed himself down with carbolic soap afterwards, but his equanimity on Saturday night was still mightily impressive.

"I was in a good place even though there was obviously a lot of criticism and stuff out there," he said with a reserved shrug.

"Obviously, when I came on against Wales, my first three minutes weren't ones to remember. But I felt I recovered well and had a good last 20.

"Against Scotland, I felt I did okay as well. So I was in a good place coming into this game, despite everything that was said."

The leap from popular fall-guy for a careless defeat in Wales to man-of-the-match against England isn't, maybe, as gargantuan as it might seem.

Everything you read is conveyed in stark, definitive language.

The vocabulary of the dressing-room tends to be more circumspect.

Sexton understands this. It's taken time, but he now knows there's nothing personal in the bloodshed.

"After the French game, maybe I was reading too much into it," he said of the media's chameleon skin.

"But I literally haven't watched TV or opened a paper since. That helps, just staying away from it. At times, Mum and the girlfriend would be giving out about certain people.

"And you're like 'Just leave it out, I don't want to hear ... ' But it's all part of it I suppose. And I'm sure it will continue to be."

He is almost a decade younger than Ronan O'Gara and there have been times this season when that age difference has been portrayed as a vast ocean of wisdom.

The Corkman is playing beautifully again and even the blithe elegance of his 10-minute cameo against a humbled England on Saturday spoke, once more, of a player that nervousness can no longer reach.

Sexton hasn't yet conquered that illusion but, occasionally, he takes a game by the collar and -- literally -- shapes it to his bidding. Saturday was that kind of day.

He had already been playing beautifully when, with 28 minutes elapsed, he elected to tap a penalty and run down the England throat.

His brazenness caught the visitors on their heels and Tommy Bowe knifed in for a try that, essentially, tossed a wreath on all that Grand Slam conceit. Ireland led 14-0.

Their intensity seemed to startle England, not least at the game's first scrum when the great white juggernaut went backpedalling as if on a sheet of ball-bearings.

"I think that set the tone," said Eoin Reddan later. "It was a lift. Not just to the players, but to the whole stadium."

More than anything, maybe it articulated a mindset.

The England game palpably touches a nerve that few others reach and, in last week's build-up, the tone of Ireland's approach was established by the officer class.

Andrew Trimble acknowledged: "It's always big when it's England. You always get a few inspirational words from (Paul) O'Connell.

"Donncha (O'Callaghan) pitched in with a few as well. You never get sick of beating England, you never get sick of just raising your game to that other level.

"Everybody wants to beat them and we're no exception. They were coming to try and get a Grand Slam and we were unbelievably motivated to stop that.

"So we went out there and just put the squeeze on them from minute one. From the moment it kicked off, it never crossed my mind that we were going to lose the game."

Had he seen the performance coming then?


"I think so," said Trimble. "I always love listening to O'Connell in the England week. "He's always got something special to say and it always has the desired effect.

"And I knew it was coming. I'm thinking to myself 'He's going to say something class.' And he does. He never lets you down on an England week.

"He's massively motivated and that inspiration just filtered through to the rest of the team.

"Everybody was unbelievably up for it.

"We wanted to get everything right technically, but we wanted to get our physicality, our intensity, everything, just the real hatred or ... just get everything up there, get up to that level and that's what it is."

What on earth had the Limerick man said?

"Couldn't give too much away now," said Trimble, laughing. "I'd be paraphrasing anyway. I don't know if I could do it as much justice as O'Connell does, but it was very inspirational anyway."

Tommy Bowe talked of the bus-ride to the stadium and the sheer colour of the supporters making the hair stand on the back of his neck.

Rory Best guided us through the simple mechanics.

"Against anyone, if you win the arm-wrestle up front, it goes a long way to winning the game" said the Ulster hooker. "If a team can't get quick ball against you, they're going to struggle to get mis-matches and overlaps.

"Look, we definitely feel we've left this Championship behind us. This is our fifth game in the Aviva, but probably the first time we've really brought the right intensity.

"Paul O'Connell talked about that during the week and in the warm-up. 'Let's bring aggression, let's show where our base line is for the World Cup and bring it from there.'

"That said, the warm-up was actually slightly scrappy for us. We put a lot of balls down.

"But you knew that there was a lot of intensity there in people, just a work-rate and a hunger to produce something.


"We've quite rightly been criticised for the way we've played during some of the games.

"I don't think the belief was ever an issue. I mean look around, we've got boys who've done everything at every stage from British and Irish Lions down to winning Magners Leagues.

"But we needed a performance. I suppose it's like in golf, that feeling of a perfect swing. We know now what it feels like.

"Still, we've got to aim to produce that every single time we take the field. If we don't do that, this game's for nothing."

England's difficulties were maybe best encapsulated by their show-pony wing, Chris Ashton. Until Saturday, the Championship had been all but his private fiefdom, a collection of swallow-dive tries and wisecrack post-game dissertations.

But in the Aviva, he might as well have been running a hot-dog stall. Once, as Sexton lined up a penalty, Ashton's desperation for involvement drew him into a verbal exchange with the kicker.

"He was just telling me, I suppose, where I should have been sitting on the bench while that kick was being taken," laughed Sexton in recall.

"Ah, it's all good banter. We spoke after. He seems to be a good lad off the pitch. He likes a chat on it but you know sometimes on the wing, when you've not a lot to do, you have to keep yourself in the game!

"Nah, he's a quality player. He's shown that during the Championship, one of the best finishers in the world."

A wonderful Irish move just after the resumption decanted a record 25th Championship try for Brian O'Driscoll and, when Sexton kicked the conversion from the touchline, it was the perfect signature on a masterful display.

He would embrace O'Gara warmly when called ashore and was keen after to emphasise that, out of their rivalry, has sprung a genuine friendship.

"Probably didn't get off to the best start," he smiled of that now infamous Croke Park photograph of two years back.


"But what happens on the pitch between Leinster and Munster goes out the window when it comes into the Irish camp.

"I'm sure in a couple of weeks time we'll be back killing each other down in Thomond, but we're great friends today anyway."

And the rivalry?

"We have a good laugh about it," said Sexton. "We're fully aware that at times, 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 for Ronan out there and he deserves it for what he's done for Munster and Irish rugby. He played well again when he came on today so it (the rivalry) will still be a hot topic I'm sure."

Just 172 days to the start of the World Cup then and, still, a moot point as to who is the Irish incumbent at No 10.

The media stereotyping has been comical at times, O'Gara depicted as slavishly devoted to the boot, Sexton as a whimsical runner.

"The out-half I suppose takes the brunt of most things," said Sexton with an impassive shrug.

"You make the decisions and you rely on other people for the outcome. That's what's frustrating at times. Not everyone looks at the bigger picture.

"But I'm lucky in that the coaches with Leinster and Ireland do. They backed me today when it could easily have gone the other way. And no one would have argued if it did."

Wise beyond his years.

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