Saturday 7 December 2019

Sexton on song for Six Nations title defence

Ireland out-half in much better place following World Cup heartache

Jonathan Sexton believes he has turned a corner after Ireland's World Cup disappointment (SPORTSFILE)
Jonathan Sexton believes he has turned a corner after Ireland's World Cup disappointment (SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Grumpy?" asks Jonathan Sexton, ever so slightly repulsed by the overly common trope attached to his persona. "I suppose you'd have to ask the fella next to me."

Leo Cullen, a storied master of the lugubrious long face himself when he wants to be, remains utterly unmoved, the head coach's mute, expressionless "No comment!" prompting widespread laughter.

At least it's a decent tonic these days.

Sexton, for those of us manifold experts in amateur psychology at any rate, wasn't accompanied by much of it during his difficult recuperation from his enforced World Cup exit.

Clearly struggling to express his best form as Leinster limped through another sobering experience in the early rounds of the Champions Cup, Sexton seemed at odds not only with himself but with everyone else.

He will admit to some concessions about his form but still demurs from the oft-repeated claim that grumpiness naturally follows; later, as he brushes aside the unverified reports of Racing Metro disdain for his two-year stint there, he does so without a trait of bitterness.


Now is all that matters and, as he demonstrated without the benefit of a vast public audience, during a stunning performance away to Ospreys in his last appearance, he is firmly back on track in time for Ireland's Six Nations challenge.

"Firstly, it was all about getting over the disappointment of the World Cup, especially personally," he admits.

"Missing out on most of the France game and the Argentina game were the biggest disappointments of my career, particularly as I had done absolutely everything right in the build-up to it.

"I felt I was in a really good place physically and mentally, but then for it all to unravel was pretty hard to take. It was tough to get over but then I came back here and came into it straight away.

"There were a couple of poor performances but then I thought I did well in a couple of other games and found some form. That is how I would view it. Maybe it is because the poor performances come in a couple of high-profile games, it becomes a story when everyone is watching.

"Maybe not so many watch the Pro12 games when I did really well. But once the fella have beside me here is happy and Joe Schmidt is happy, then that is all I really care about.

"Obviously I represent a lot more than that on a personal level and a team level. And we play for a lot more than that. I would love to listen to everyone's opinion when things are going well but that would be a distraction.

"I try not to get much of it, still you get a little if you don't go looking for it. You get people asking are you okay after the stick you have been getting. But I feel like I have turned a bit of a corner and am playing well."

Even better news for Ireland is that he will do without an exhausting schedule of early-morning flights to and from Paris, not to mention inhospitably gruelling Top 14 slugfests on the weekends when his Ireland team-mates are lounging on their coaches.

Added to that, he had also been thoroughly disadvantaged by the necessary 12-week absence following the LNR-imposed mandatory concussion ban; a year on, with the World Cup now flushed from his system, his head is clear in more ways than one.

"I am looking forward to a Six Nations where, if I am selected, I am not worrying about having to travel back from a game one week or back to a game another," revealed the ex-Racing Metro out-half. "All those things matter and they take it out of you. And I do feel quite good physically.

"It was a unique position not playing for 12 weeks and having to play for your country straight away. It was something I wouldn't like to do again.

"It was a tough week, preparation-wise, because you had nothing to base it on. Even sometimes having bad performances can be a good thing. You have something to go off, something to work on. Going in off good performances, you have a lot of confidence. But, going in off 12 weeks of nothing was pretty tough. I'm in a much better place this year which is great."

Ireland can wait; Leinster now hope their upward curve can continue as they bookend their European campaign with a Wasps' fixture that, last November, seemed to signal the poor health of the team and its chief pilot.

"I am looking forward to this weekend first and foremost because it is a big game and it is hard not to look too far past that," he says.

"It is a big few months for us and hopefully a big end to the season here as well. Our performance level has gone up massively in the last six games.

"We even showed against Toulon, at home we did well in the first half, put them to the sword like few other teams have done in recent years but we just couldn't back it up.

"For us, it's about all of us having something slightly different to play for. Whether it's going into the Six Nations squad or trying to get your jersey in Leinster for next week, a big match against the Dragons.

"We all have something to play for. And, also, guys came in last week and showed us what needs to be done. They really stepped it up. We've got to follow them now.

"I feel we have turned the corner, we are on the right road. We have a long way to go before we fulfil our potential but I feel like we are on our way."

With Sexton in full swing, that can only be good news for club and country as both strive to finish the season on a high note.

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