Sunday 22 April 2018

Time stops to hail man of moment

‘We were acting like footballers in the end. But it’s natural emotion’

Bundee Aki is the first to embrace Johnny Sexton after his match-winning heroics. Photo: Getty Images
Bundee Aki is the first to embrace Johnny Sexton after his match-winning heroics. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Perhaps we had witnessed sufficient miracles for one day.

When Jonathan Sexton finally leaves the arena on his one working leg, he still manages enough energy to skip past a puddle.

Left: The injured Josh van der Flier is helped off the pitch. Photo: PA
Left: The injured Josh van der Flier is helped off the pitch. Photo: PA

It's a surprise to us that he didn't simply walk upon it.

After all, he had already acquired the gift of arresting time, the architect of a personal Arc De Triomphe with one sweep of that solitarily functional foot. Never had trash time smelled so sweet.

Even when 80 minutes are up, and all hopes seems gone, once you have the ball, you're in control.

For sure, the fact that the clock turns red imposes added theatrics to all who watch agog within and beyond the gasping stadium; between the ropes, the actors appear unmoved by the spectacle.

The cliché and headline-writers have it that time was running out; if you're a player, once you have the ball in your possession when 79.59 rolls into 80.00, you have all the time in the world.

Sometimes it's a liberating luxury.

"It's always on in situations like this," says Peter O'Mahony, whose carry in the 40th phase preceded the ultimate nudge from CJ Stander that launched the shot heard around the world.

And yet it as if he is talking about putting out the bins of an evening.

"There was a lot of belief from the boys," offers Bundee Aki. "They trusted each other and trusted the process. The boys came in together in a huddle after that try was scored and they just said 'here, look we've got five minutes to do it and you want to do it, keep your hand up and keep going'. That's what the boys did. Leaders just led. The young fellas just followed on."

Sexton was the leader, the man who harangued his men beneath the posts after Anthony Belleau's penalty miss confirmed the mathematical reality. Three points.

"I knew we'd get another chance," says the out-half. Sexton would lead them; all would follow.

Not just the man of the moment. The moment of the man.

And yet the wonder is not that they had the desire and belief, but also the physical and mental ability to raise themselves, even if Belleau had spurned his chance to firmly snap the pine lid shut on a hitherto slipshod Irish effort.

O'Mahony: "We mixed it about a bit. We got knocked back a bit. We rolled our sleeves up a bit."

To win the ball from the restart, Sexton had to kick it away and hope that it would be regathered; his punt was on the money and Iain Henderson swooped to conquer but then it seemed as if Ireland were going nowhere, slowly, as they had all evening on the glue-pot sod.

Trenches

Sexton knew as much. To emerge from the trenches and advance, he must step into no-man's land by kicking the ball again.

If anything is a bigger gamble than the last roll of the dice, this is it. "Johnny pushes the envelope to get you up the pitch when he knows one mistake could end the game," Dan Leavy says.

The flight of the Earls, soaring above Virimi Vakatawa, ensures Ireland regather; his step and sprint propels them into the opposition half. Once again, the ball and the time and the belief and the chance is all theirs.

Bodies are battered and bruised but Irish minds are finely tuned within cool heads. "It's the next ball, the next play," says Leavy.

Tick tock, tick tock. "You have to listen," O'Mahony tells us. "You have to keep your ears back."

As Leavy avers, "There's no margin for error so you've got to be really clued in."

Belief fuels them but anxiety mocks them too. Sexton later speaks of how he knew he would take the blame for the horrible penalty kick he stabbed wide earlier.

"Doubts creep into your head, even towards the end," admits Conor Murray, the man who must eventually serve Sexton the ball upon a platter.

The team are losing a game they have dominated against an ordinary side. They may deserve to win but 'deserve' doesn't belong to sport.

Into the sixth minute and towards the 40th of 41 phases, the time that has been their own must soon be spent. The ball they have owned must now be sacrificed for something heroic. Failure or glory, we do not know which.

"I'm just trying to get my pass right and then my job is done!" smiles Murray, sheepishly down-playing his role. Sexton fires the gun but Murray must provide the bullet.

"I have a rough idea of the conditions he needs. You judge it by the body language. He has a show of the eyebrows.

"We got that quick nudge on. We nearly went again. They thought we were nearly going to go again. But we didn't go again."

His pass is his best of the mixed day he and all his mates have had. Sexton receives the ball without, it seems, having to move any muscles except those in the arms gathering the ball.

He has already been stretching his cramping leg. "That's news to me," Leavy reports. "I was in work mode, so I had the blinkers on. Just carrying and rucking, carrying and rucking."

Schmidt revealed, "We had Joey Carbery ready to go. Then the physios said he was okay, which was a bit of a relief."

The photos capture Sexton's perfectly poised technique and, then, the emerging wonder in his face as the airborne pill possesses enough loft to clear its target by a foot.

Screen

"I don't know where he went," laughs Murray. "He was in the other 22! Claiming to look at it on the big screen. Then I could see his arms in the air. We were acting like footballers at the end. But it's natural emotion. These are special moments."

Aki is the first to greet him; he jumps in his arms; the wonder is that Sexton was not submerged in the turf; instead, he cradles the gargantuan centre as if he were his youngest child.

"It was a special one. Johnny, I look up to him. He's got a massive heart. To have that courage a fair way back to nail that kick, it's only world-class players step up, put their hands up and nail those big moments," says Aki.

Others simply submit to the relief that they need no longer ask body or mind for anything more.

"I don't think I really had much energy to be emotional at that stage," says the outstanding second-half replacement Leavy, adding, with forgivable crudity: "Johnny obviously has the biggest balls on the planet!"

Inside, Jacques Brunel is muttering, "C'est Cruel, C'est Cruel."

And as we scan L'Equipe the next morning - "C'est Cruel, mais juste" - an elderly couple saunter by, hand in hand, making the most of a brief ray of sunshine.

It seems they too have all the time in the world. Sexton reminds all of us it's what we do with it is that really counts for something.

Irish Independent

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