Saturday 17 February 2018

Redemption for Johnny Sexton: The artist brushing against perfection; Scorsese in the director’s chair on the set of Raging Bull

Jonathan Sexton, left, and Jamie Heaslip of Ireland celebrate victory
Jonathan Sexton, left, and Jamie Heaslip of Ireland celebrate victory
Roy Curtis

Roy Curtis

The warm draughts of redemption gusted across Soldier Field like a visceral, unstoppable, emerald-tinged Nor’easter whistling in from the palpitating shores of Lake Michigan.

For Johnny Sexton, especially, the rush of joy must have sounded like the booming drumbeat of liberation.

Or, the rustle of release papers confirming a three year incarceration in a prison of his own despair was at an end.

It is nothing new, of course, for Sexton to be master of the house on one of these transcendent afternoons when the very lifeblood of a nation becomes gloriously intertwined with the sporting theatre unfolding on a distant rectangle of grass.

But, even set against the Himalayan peaks of Grand Slam and Heineken Cup glory, of a career of unrivalled crests, here was a summit that towered higher again.

For Sexton, a competitor of such perfectionist zeal, custodian of a mainframe on which the memory of every blunder, every fluffed line lingers like a virus, a venomous malware, this must have felt like the ultimate restitutive peak.

Simon Zebo, right, celebrates with team-mate Jonathan Sexton after scoring their side's fourth try against New Zealand
Simon Zebo, right, celebrates with team-mate Jonathan Sexton after scoring their side's fourth try against New Zealand

This was the planting of the atonement ensign on Everest's icy high-point; the erasing of a memory which had eaten at Ireland's most celebrated player for fully three years.

There was no anesthetic, no aspirin for the acute loneliness, the devastation which kidnapped Sexton's soul when Ireland fell agonisingly short against New Zealand in 2013, when liquid gold ran through a nation's fingers and rolled into the sewer.

Presented with a stamped visa to rugby’s Promised Land, Sexton had stumbled and fallen.

A sat-nav failure, a lengthy hesitation, an imperfect-swing left the Dubliner watching with gathering horror – a lurching feeling about his innards - as a penalty which would have given Ireland a surely unassailable lead over the world champions was pushed right and wide.

And a groan that might have been mistaken for a death-rattle consumed D4.

Soon after, Ryan Crotty would rescue the All Blacks with a late, late try.  In an instant, a terrible moment of realisation, the Aviva morphed from Mardi Gras to mausoleum.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and Rob Kearney celebrate victory
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and Rob Kearney celebrate victory

Inevitably, from the bowels of social media ignorance, vomited the pitiless bile on Ireland’s number ten:  “Choker”.

Nonsense, of course, but Sexton, an athlete who demands more of himself than any critic ever could, would have played that kick over and over again; the failure to seize the day was, you suspect, singed to his conscious as if by branding iron.

Only last week, he recalled that miss with the lingering torment of a man who craved the news that someone, somewhere had just patented a working time-machine.

How he would love to travel back over the years and face up to that defining date with destiny once more.

Conor Murray leads the celebrations as Robbie Henshaw touches down for Ireland’s fifth try late in the game. Photo: Getty
Conor Murray leads the celebrations as Robbie Henshaw touches down for Ireland’s fifth try late in the game. Photo: Getty

Saturday in Chicago was as close as he could ever get to a journey across the fourth dimension.

So, the soothing suds of atonement must have washed over the Dubliner as – on this day of days for Irish rugby, Irish sport, Irish life, - the gods seemed to place in his gift the very tempo at which the great world should spin.

Of course, the out-half wasn’t alone as Ireland – furious, flawless, and touched by the heavens - fired themselves at a 111 year curse like a flaming slingshot of emerald yearning.

At Soldier Field, Joe Schmidt’s Green Berets waged the battle of their lives, compelled a superpower – at the 29th attempt - to waive the white flag of surrender.

Rob Henshaw roared and growled like a Lion king; Simon Zebo was an extraordinary cocktail of exuberance and attention to detail; CJ Stander was infused by the spirit of Anthony Foley; Conor Murray delivered the sort of masterclass that is the calling-card of a world class scrum-half at the very peak of their powers; Tadhg Furlong seemed to shift the tectonic plates beneath Illinois. 

But the field marshal, emphatically, was Sexton.

Conor Murray breaks through the New Zealand defence to score Ireland's third try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray breaks through the New Zealand defence to score Ireland's third try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Leinster’s quarterback was, for his hour-long shift, an artist brushing against perfection: Scorsese in the director’s chair on the set of Raging Bull; Vermeer dappling the canvass to deliver one more Dutch masterpiece; Mozart applying the final clef to another flawless concerto.

His authoritative signature was on the best of Ireland’s work.  Whether kicking for goal or position, the soft-hand feed to Rob Kearney for CJ Stander’s try, the defiant defence, he was the commanding officer executing Schmidt’s superior masterplan to perfection.

Johnny might well have had the pips and laces of a five-star general sewn into his uniform.

Without his influence an afternoon of gorgeous pandemonium, a result that felt like a second Big Bang, re-configuring the rugby universe, would surely have been stillborn.

At the end, who could have blamed Sexton if he felt a crushing weight rise from his shoulders? A suffocating three-year-old darkness – a Stygian All Black gloom – had at last evaporated.

And amid the Midwest tumult, a giant of the Irish sporting landscape could bask in the warm glow of the most beautiful liberation.

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