Tuesday 15 October 2019

'I would have laughed if someone told me we'd win all this in 2018' - Johnny Sexton

Sexton eyes improvements in 2019 after being crowned Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year following historic 12 months

Star man: Johnny Sexton shows off his Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year award. Photo: INPHO
Star man: Johnny Sexton shows off his Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year award. Photo: INPHO

Rúaidhri O'Connor

First, the Rugby Writers of Ireland; next, the world?

Johnny Sexton has long been recognised in his own country, last night was the second time he mounted the podium to collect this particular award, but on Sunday the Ireland out-half is the hot favourite to join an even more prestigious club as World Rugby's best player of 2018.

His body of work as the de facto leader of an Irish team that created history over a glorious calendar year speaks for itself and having conquered the All Blacks on Saturday, he is now targeting further success in the New Year.

Sexton is at the top of his game right now and having kicked off the international year with that drop-goal in Paris, he has kept his standards sky-high.

He and the team won't spend too long reflecting on their success because they are fully aware of what lies ahead in 2019, with the World Cup in Japan at the forefront of everybody's mind.

And Sexton knows that if Ireland were to stand still, their rivals will quickly move past them.

"New Zealand will say they weren't at their best and we'll feel we put a lot of pressure on them to make the game like that," he said of the win.

"They'll learn a lot from that game and they'll get better, if they have room for that after the season they've had, demolishing everyone in the Rugby Championship bar one game.

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"So they'll look back on that one game and even the England game and learn some good lessons and they'll get better.

"I think now in the Six Nations, because we won the Championship last year and we've beaten New Zealand now, that we're going to have a target on our head and teams are going to play us as the underdog.

"So we're going to have to come up with a way to deal with that and that's the challenge for us now.

"We're going to have to get better because other teams are definitely going to do that around us."

Improving on such a high-level performance might seem a tough ask, but Sexton has already identified areas where the team can get better.

"Well, look, you're always trying to improve. It's the coaches that really drive things, then they'll hand things over to the leadership group to drive that even further and we can get better," he said.

"I know it's very easy to say but there's parts of our game that we can go even further. We showed glimpses of it on Saturday but there were chances that we didn't take on Saturday that if we had lost the game we would look back and say, 'God, we really should have nailed that.

"So there's always ways to get better and when you've got the calibre of coaches that we have, they're hard on us, honest with us and definitely keep our feet on the ground."

Despite stunning performances across the year, the out-half says the team are still striving to produce their best.

"We wouldn't have played the perfect game, but there's probably patches of games where we were pretty impressive," he conceded when asked which performance pleased him most.

"There were patches in Twickenham in the Grand Slam decider, whether with the ball or without the ball, that were pretty good. There were patches on Saturday that were pretty good and even that Wales game where we had to dig in, we played some brilliant stuff that day.

"So, against the big teams, like that five minutes at the end of the French game, there's highlights through all the games where you look back and think, 'that was pretty special' but in terms of one game, no. The games where you win stuff or achieve stuff, they're the games you always remember because you get to lift something at the end of the day or you get to celebrate something. That's the way I think about it.

"It's very hard. The Grand Slam . . . you always chase something that you don't have or haven't won before and for years we were chasing it, so that was very special in itself.

"To then win a European Cup with Leinster, when you consider where we were three years before that, that was probably my lowest ever point with Leinster back then and probably my highest ever point with Leinster to get back to that European summit, on top of that Grand Slam made it very, very special.

"Then to go on and win the double with the Guinness PRO14 on top of that . . . "

And then you beat the All Blacks?

"Yeah, that's history. That's the first time. It's always special to win the first time, do something for the first time, so to beat them in Ireland for the first time is very, very special too," he said.

"Grand Slams had been done before so you could argue that that's probably the highlight. It's very hard but look, when you consider the whole year . . . if someone had told me we'd win all this at the start of the year I would have laughed at them. At the same time, even though I would have laughed at them, it's what you dream of as well.

"You always have to think big and we're certainly doing that but it's the work that goes on behind the scenes that people don't see.

"They just see the end product and you can often work as hard as that in all the previous years and get nothing out of it.

"Then one year it all falls into place, so it's funny how things work out."

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