Tuesday 25 June 2019

'Was what I said to Kieran Read picked up on sound?' - Sexton had some choice words for All Black

Johnny Sexton of the Lions is hauled down by Sam Whitelock. ‘We could have won it. I knew we had a great chance before the game,’ said the Lions No 10. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton of the Lions is hauled down by Sam Whitelock. ‘We could have won it. I knew we had a great chance before the game,’ said the Lions No 10. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Off came his Lions jersey, for the last time, in the Paradise Lost of Eden Park. Jonathan Sexton was still trying to figure out if a draw was a victory or defeat.

The whole watching world didn't seem to get the fact this final Test was a profile in courage and the game of the age. No one knew how to take the draw.

This last game was a reminder of just how brutal and beautiful rugby can be.

The Barrett boys conjured up old moves from childhood games in the field at the back of the cow house.

Jerome Kaino put Sean O'Brien out of the game with a ruthless, no wrap, shoulder charge when O'Brien wasn't ready. Players were taking standing counts every few minutes.

The Lions fought for every ball and never gave in to a slightly better team. The All Blacks went wide and knocked on two tries.

The Lions, too, were brothers in arms. Their defence was heroic, their resolve in the face of relentless pressure was stoic.

Both sets of supporters should have stayed on to clap the two teams off.

So not for the first time, there was a serious error of judgment in the Garden of Eden. Most of the Kiwis were on their second pint when the cup was partitioned.

Many of us have had misgivings about the whole concept of Lions tours.

The Irish players took some punishment. Robbie Henshaw had to go home early. Sean O'Brien's shoulder is damaged.

Sexton went over on his ankle and is awaiting the results of a scan. They are all carrying injuries. The English club owners want out.

But then, when you see how much this tour means to the players in terms of the recognition that they are the best in their positions, the friendships made, and the quality of the rugby played, I say let the tours continue.

The Lions are part of our rugby heritage. Rugby must never sell out this four-nation shared history to the money men and the commodity traders.

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We spoke to Sexton minutes after the game. It takes time to come down.

Clark Kent changed into Superman in a phone box. Sexton turns ferocious when he pulls a jersey over his head in the dressing room.

"We could have won it. I knew we had a great chance before the game. We had chances."

"Hold on," I say. "You have just drawn a Lions series in New Zealand. The All Blacks have won 38 in a row in Eden Park. You have beaten the All Blacks twice and drawn once in the last nine months. We would have taken that when they beat us in Lansdowne Road."

I don't mention that kick he missed when his leg was falling off and he should have passed on the penalty.

The 10 is still in battle mood. "I twisted my ankle. They think it's ligaments. I was sure we would score that try. Did we play well?"

He is a worrier. "Was what I said to Kieran Read picked up on sound?"

Read asked the referee to get Sexton off the pitch when his ankle was being strapped up.

Jonathan replied with some choice language and swore his next tackle on Read would count. That's him. He lets nothing go.

Jonathan lined up Kaino for the tackle of the tour and sent him ten yards backwards. Kaino must have been mortified.

I loved New Zealand but I miss Laura and the kids. It's been seven weeks since I've seen them. But then I met an Irish lad who hasn't been home for three years."

So I ask him, "is all this talk of Lions friendships just media blather?"

He pays tribute to Owen Farrell, who kept him on the bench for most of the first Test.

"Owen made mistakes but he put that all behind him and those kicks he nailed just showed what he's made of."

His biggest rival became his team-mate and best friend on tour. Together they rescued the Lions with clever plays and nerveless kicking. All of the Irish played well and proved conclusively that Soldier Field was no fluke.

I didn't wish Jonathan a happy birthday. He will be 32 tomorrow. Players in their 30s don't talk about birthdays.

Sexton is still the shrewdest tactician in rugby, even if he does throw himself in front of raging bulls like a matador without a cape.

There was no way he would agree this was the most physical game he has ever played. "It's up there. The ankle restricted me. I could have done more."

He is black, blue and clawed red. In a few hours his ankle will be purple. He will miss the men who caused him all this pain.

"The All Blacks are the best team. I love playing against them. They really test you and will do anything it takes to win. I'd love a few more minutes to have another cut."

I tell him to find Read. Share a beer. Make friends. "Ah I will," he says. "I will."

Even though he's dying to get home there's a lonesomeness in his voice for the glory days of what was been and what might have been. No more in red.

There was no communal singing of the parting song in Eden Park. A pity that.

'Now is the Hour' is a Maori farewell to New Zealand, and every Irish person will understand their 'Danny Boy'.

Now is the hour when we must say goodbye

Soon you'll be sailing far across the sea

While you're away, o, then remember me

When you return, you'll find me waiting here

And yes, we will never forget this Lions tour.

The All Blacks will be waiting in 12 years' time. But now was the hour when brave men gave their all.

Their shared story is stored forever by the rugby archivists in the annals of the greats.

Yes, there are times when a draw really is a victory.

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