Friday 17 November 2017

Johnny Sexton: 'We try to target the opposition No 10s as well except we try to do it legally'

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton recieves medical attention after picking up an injury against Italy
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton recieves medical attention after picking up an injury against Italy
David Kelly

David Kelly

If rugby is essentially battle; Jonathan Sexton is one of its most celebrated combatants.

Often, he knows the rules of engagement and accepts them; that is why one plays the sport, after all. He knows what is coming and that is why is accepts it.

A half hour into last weekend's international, Sexton is smashed by Michele Campagnaro just as he releases the pass to Keith Earls that ultimately creates the break in the line for CJ Stander's try.

It is an act of utter selflessness; the essence of taking one for the team; delay, avoid the inevitable hit, and the chance is gone; Sexton did not ponder prevarication.

Johnny Sexton in Carton House yesterday Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton in Carton House yesterday Photo: Sportsfile

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You suggest it is a warrior mentality but he demurs; dangerously high-wire is a more acceptable term.

"Alan Gaffney (the former Leinster and Ireland backs coach) used to say you had to put each other under pressure for a move to come off," he muses. "So for that move to work the way it did I had to almost get man and ball for it to work.

"Maybe it was too close but that's what make the move work at times, if a defender feels he can get to you but the ball is somewhere else.

"So if the move comes off it's great, you can get up and try and catch your breath for the conversion, but like I said, there's absolutely no problem with a hit like that. Campagnaro was committed.

"Look, rugby's a physical sport and you're going to get bangs and bumps and that's just part of the game really."

Miss his chance and Ireland miss the score. "Yeah, the move doesn't work, exactly. Put each other under pressure and it comes off."

He barely has time to brace for the inevitable crushing contact but he knows it will arrive; he is crouched on the floor, catching his breath as Stander celebrates his first international try.

He allows himself a smile. The try will come just as he knows the hit will come; that's the contract you sign.

Except the battle is not always engaged on your terms; where even wars sometimes obey rules, sport often wilfully disdains its own rulings, or adheres to others that have never been ruled in the first place.

Ireland's Johnny Sexton (centre) is consoled by England's Owen Farrell (right) at the end of the 2016 RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham

Throughout this Six Nations championship, Sexton has been repeatedly smashed illegally post-tackle and, while penalties have accrued in some cases, in others they have not; even when straight-arm rulings were made, one could conceivably argue further sanction was required.

Sexton has willingly endured this to submit to the cause of the team; further, he has suffered even more outrageous slings and arrows from off the field, attacks that have blind-sided him for it has proved nearly impossible, or at the very least emotionally exhausting, to defend them.

And yet it has barely affected his playing form; it has seemed as if he somehow appears each weekend as a renewed force of nature; the true catalyst of this team and everything it tries so desperately to achieve.

"As a ten you go through highs and lows," he says. "There have been a lot of distractions for me over the last number of weeks, since the start of the championship really.

"But I suppose the longer you are in the game the better you become at trying to deal with those. I think you can put things in perspective a little bit also.

"As far as the late tackles are concerned, the only frustrating thing is that nothing has been done; penalties are the worst things that have happened off a few of those late hits.

"Look, it's part of the game. It's what you expect as a No 10. I suppose we try to target the opposition No 10s as well except we try to do it legally.

"You don't know if it is a tactic or if it is an individual doing it off their own bat. It's part of the game, some of them are marginal like the one at the weekend. Just as I'm releasing the ball, you get tackled, that's fine, it is part of the game.

'It can’t be easy for Sexton at the moment' Photo: Sportsfile

"So I don't think those are as bad as a couple of the other ones. I don't think it is a big deal. They can be sore at times when you are not expecting them. I suppose you just have to dust yourself off and go again."

And this he continues to do; once more, he will be in the vanguard as Ireland seek to finish their championship on a high against the Scots this weekend.

Yet again, the absence of ego will not allow him to wallow in the pleasure of demonstrating good form - albeit he thanks you for the compliment, one confirmed by his squad members.

"I'm tempted to say Johnny wants to prove people wrong but I don't think Johnny really cares that much," agrees Andrew Trimble.

"I don't think Johnny would buy into any of that. He just plays the type of rugby he wants to play. He just wants to perform as well as he can.

"He takes on a lot of responsibility for our team performance, our shape, our pattern, our tempo, everything, and he takes the credit when it's going well and the flak when it's not going well.

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"There are thin margins between it going well and badly. I don't think he'd get too bogged down in what people are saying."

Sexton would rather his side were winning matches rather than earning praise.

"I would rather be playing a little bit worse and winning. At the end of the day, when you're playing No 10 you judge yourself on results. And we haven't got them.

"And when you are playing in the ten role, you blame yourself as much as you look at the other guys around you."

Many of those around him will for the basis of a World Cup challenge four years after their last opportunity subsided, with one of his many injury-enforced absences from the quarter-final submission to Argentina a chief contributory factor.

Speculation has already begun on whether Joe Schmidt will lead Ireland to Japan; his on-field representative as general, the first man to meet him before he took charge of Leinster seven years ago, hopes he can remain in harness.

"We got decimated during the World Cup," he says. "I think we could have built something pretty special there. To lose a third of your team in the space of a week, it was tough to do it.

"Joe's record speaks for itself. Hopefully, we can keep him for longer than he has signed up for. I know that I definitely will be there."

He'll keep on taking the hits.

Irish Independent

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