‘He didn’t finish on his own terms’ - Johnny Sexton ‘really felt’ for Ronan O'Gara during Grand Slam celebrations

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton and his three children celebrate the Grand Slam at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Johnny Sexton says he was struck by the contrast between his final Six Nations game and the end of Ronan O'Gara's Ireland career during the celebrations last Saturday.

The Ireland captain, who is awaiting news on the groin strain that threatens the end of his Leinster season, took time out of the team's celebrations to talk to ‘The Good, The Bad and The Rugby’ podcast where he said he hopes to make it back in a couple of weeks.

On Saturday, he kicked his way past O'Gara's all-time Six Nations points record.

"I spoke to ROG last week. It's funny that we were speaking when we were tied but I haven't spoken to him since I broke the record!" Sexton said with a smile.

"Honestly, the one time I did think of ROG was at the end of the game and the reception that I got.

"I really felt for him, because he was a legend of Irish rugby and he didn't get to finish on his own terms in a green shirt. And he deserved to as much as anyone.

"You look at the send-off Brian got, the send-off Paulie got - I know he finished with an injury, but winning the Six Nations on his final game, I did feel for him in those moments. He deserved it."

Sexton said he'd taken time out of Ireland's raucous celebrations to meet his brother Mark who was part of the victorious U-20s coaching ticket.

And, reflecting on their success this spring, the 37-year-old said this is the best Ireland team he's been part of.

"It comes from a bit of experience, you've got to make the most of it. It's the best environment, the best group of lads I've been involved with," he said.

"It's the best playing group I've ever been involved with.

"I've been blessed to play with legends like Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara - these guys are right up there with them."

They may the best, but Sexton knows there's a big test coming their way at the World Cup this autumn.

"We've got the coaches, a real good team environment, the camaraderie - it's almost like a club team. We've got the basis of it, we've some really good players as well, but what we need to do is learn how to play really well under pressure," he said.

"We didn't quite do it against England, we did against France.

"We've probably got the toughest draw Ireland have ever had at a World Cup. We've got South Africa, Scotland and Tonga who are getting so many guys back through the (eligibility) rules and so we've got three really hard games to get through that, then France or New Zealand in the quarter-finals if we get through.

"It's going to be the hardest World Cup by a mile, we've got to keep our feet on the ground. Being number one in the world counts for nothing.

"Once we get together it'll be get as fit as possible, nailing that pre-season 100pc and then it's get out of your pool. Once we get out of that, we'll worry about the quarter final."

The captain paid tribute to Andy Farrell and his coaches for their work in building the team.

"If one person has to take credit for this team it's him," he said.

"He's revamped everything since the last World Cup. He tore everything up and started again.

"We didn't see the benefits right away, because it always takes time when a new coach comes in with new ideas in terms of the environment, how we play.

"We're only starting to see the benefits over the last 18 months, but this is his vision.

"He picked young guys in 2019, stood by some of the older guys like me, Keith, Conor Murray and kept them in the environment.

"What he's done in terms of the rugby, he's an incredible coach. He knows the game, he knows people; he's an incredible coach and he hasn't changed one bit from being an assistant to a head coach.

"Some coaches would feel they'd have to, that they can't have a beer with the lads or a party, but he hasn't changed one bit, he's the life and soul of the place even as the head man.

"Andy empowers the players, it's not just me it's the leadership group. It's expanding every year when Andy feels they're ready.

"This year, Hugo Keenan and Caelan Doris came in; very young, relatively inexperienced in international rugby but they've added massively to it.

"It's that, it's the environment where everyone has opinions. You can be yourself, he encourages everyone to be themselves.

"He's brought in some wild and wonderful characters, Mack Hansen comes in and he's encouraged to be his strange self and add to the environment and everyone loves him for it.

"I'm saying all this, I was Joe Schmidt's biggest fan as well and it's not one size fits all. This is what Andy has done, he's having success with it now. I loved working under Joe as well and I don't want to say everything was bad under him, we had some great success."

"Andy takes most of the plaudits and he's the head coach and its his vision that's come to fruition, but he'd say himself you're only as good as the guys around you.

"He's got Catty, who he's known for so long, Paul O'Connell has been huge in a kind of good cop, bad cop with Faz. Simon Easterby and John Fogarty, Simon changed his role to defence from forwards and has been equally as good.

"We're blessed, I don't get to deal too much with Fogs, but they're a great team who get on well together and the boys get on with him as well."