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'Maybe we should have looked more at the individuals' - Sexton questions analysis of All-Blacks before World Cup exit


Ireland's Johnny Sexton walks off dejected after the New Zealand match. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Ireland's Johnny Sexton walks off dejected after the New Zealand match. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Ireland's Johnny Sexton walks off dejected after the New Zealand match. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton believes that his side made a mistake in their pre-game analysis of the All Blacks ahead of last year's disastrous World Cup quarter-final defeat. 

Having come into the last eight clash on the back of beating New Zealand in Dublin the previous year, as well as the historic first victory in Chicago in 2016, Ireland were full of confidence, before being ruthlessly dismantled.

The All Blacks team that started in Japan showed a number of changes to the side that featured at the Aviva Stadium, particularly in the back-three where Beauden Barrett switched to full-back, while Sevu Reece and George Bridge started on either wing.

Ireland couldn't live with the pace and power of New Zealand, and ended up being comfortably beaten 46-14.

Reflecting on the defeat today during the IRFU's Analytica 2020 webinar, a performance analytics conference in aid of Pieta House, Sexton admitted that Ireland got their approach wrong.

"One thing I always think we never talk about is the spectacular failures," said Vinny Hammond, the IRFU's head of analytics and innovation, who was moderating the online event.

"You prepare and prepare only to look up and it is completely different. Is there any moment in your career where the analysis is done but you look up and just go 'Oh no'?"

"There have been lots of moments like that in every game," Sexton responded.

"When you are playing out-half, you are involved so much and you are in so many big moments.

"Everyone will remember the moments that don't go well and I certainly remember the moments that don't well more than I should.

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"Lots are coming to my head in terms of mistakes, but they weren't based off the back of analysis.

"Oh well, maybe if you go to the New Zealand quarter-final – when a team that you have analysed and you think you have got the beating of, and you know you have had them the last two times you have played them, and in many ways you maybe should have beaten them by more than the last two times.

"Then suddenly you come out and just start (against) a totally different team, a totally different beast.

"That could be one that we maybe should have gone and looked at individuals as opposed to teams, and realised what we were up against.

"Hindsight is a great thing as well when you are talking about analysis. Everyone is a a genius in hindsight."

Sexton, like everyone else, is itching for rugby to get back underway, and he reiterated his intention to not hang up his playing boots any time soon.

The out-half will turn 35 in July, but he has made no secret of the fact that he wants to make a third Lions tour next summer.

Asked by Hammond, how he has been using his time during the lockdown, Sexton explained:

"Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or search for a new spin, it's going back and almost validating (what you know) – the things you thought you knew that you'd let slip over a period of time, it's amazing.

"I've definitely found that. I've gone back and things that I've read or things from earlier on in my career and I've figured, I haven't done that recently or that's something I can definitely take with me for after this. So different things like that to work hard on.

"One good thing for me is that it's given me a bit of a taste of what retirement might be like and I definitely don't want to retire any time soon.

"I'm reading a book called Play On (by Jeff Bercovici) which Mick Kearney gave to me, the old Irish team manager who's back currently, he's sort of part-time team manager now. It's all about how all the top athletes played on until their late 30s early 40s and I'm reading it like the Bible at the moment and taking in every bit of it.

"My wife's trying to throw it in the bin every chance she gets but it's been a good time from that point of view, trying to really sort of start again. That's the way I'm looking at it."

Touching on the role analytics now plays in modern professional rugby, Sexton acknowledged its growing importance, but was keen to offer a reminder that players must also have the freedom to play what is in front of them.

Using an example of that, he went on to recall his thought process behind his dramatic last-gasp drop goal in Paris two years ago, which set Ireland on their way to a memorable Grand Slam.

"Under Joe Schmidt, we used to defend a certain way for maybe two or three games in-a-row on purpose because we had a big game coming up down the line that we were going to surprise a team with," Sexton added.

"You don't want to be in that bracket of analysing a team to an inch. You have to still have an element of being playing able to play the game.

"Not knowing the statistics in that (Paris) scenario is probably a positive. If I had known the percentage of drop goals that go over from there, I probably wouldn't have taken it on, but you get a feel.

"We had been going for five minutes. Guys were out on their feet. It's the end of a long game, very physical. We weren't going to get a penalty. Lots of things were coming into it.

"It was a case of had I got one from here before? Yeah. Do I have it in the bag? I think I do. Let's not die wondering.

"You have to have a shot. If you never had a shot there, I don't think anyone would have blamed you because I think a lot of people were blaming me as the ball left my foot – Joe Schmidt, you (Hammond), Andy Farrell, all cursing me!

"Everyone I know pretty much said the same, but that is where experience from knowing that you have done it before.

"It's amazing, I hit a drop goal against Treviso that no one will remember, again one minute to go from the exact same spot.

"I knew it was there but again, I practised so much every week. Only a few long range goals but they are something you practise from time to time."

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