# fond memories
Ireland's Sexton and Hammond recall visit to Japan as 16-year-olds
St Mary’s College visited Japan in 2002 for a schools rugby competition.

JOHNNY SEXTON’S FIRST experience of facing a haka came at 7.30am in the morning in Fukuoka, Japan back in 2002.

He was 16 at the time and on a rugby trip with his school, St Mary’s College, to play in the prestigious Sanix World Rugby Youth Invitational Tournament.

Remarkably enough, his halfback partner for Mary’s was Vinny Hammond, who is now a performance analyst for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. Hammond rarely gets a mention but his relentless work behind the scenes with fellow analyst Mervyn Murphy is important.

vinny-hammond-and-johnny-sexton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Hammond and Sexton are back in Japan 17 years on. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

As Sexton and Hammond found themselves back in Fukuoka last week for Ireland’s World Cup clash with Samoa, they couldn’t help but think back to that unforgettable trip with Mary’s 17 years ago.

Unfortunately, the memories of the opening game against Wesley College of New Zealand are harrowing.

“We arrived in here at midnight and the next morning at 7.30am, we kicked off,” recalls Hammond with a smile. 

“So, we were facing the haka at half seven in the morning! We got absolutely pumped, it was a disaster.”

Sitting alongside Hammond, who is known to step in at Ireland training sessions when numbers are low, Sexton chimes in: “‘I played well!” 

That clash with Wesley was Sexton’s first experience of playing against Kiwi opposition, something he has become fairly familiar with in recent years and something he will do again this weekend in a World Cup quarter-final.

“And they were probably the best team in New Zealand,” says Sexton. “I think they’re famous for producing All Blacks.”

Sexton turns to rugby nerd Hammond and asks:

“I actually never looked at their team to see who came out of it?”

jonathan-sexton-1522003 ©INPHO Sexton playing for St Mary's in 2003. ©INPHO

It transpires that Sekope Kepu, who is at this World Cup with the Wallabies, was the number eight in that Wesley side, so clearly they had plenty of ability. 

The final score?

Hammond: “These things aren’t important!”

Sexton: “It was only 20 minutes a half. It felt like about three games but it was only 20 minutes a half.”

The friendship formed on that trip and in other rugby games as a halfback partnership has clearly lasted the years as Hammond and Sexton bounce off each other in one of the more enjoyable media briefings Ireland have held at this World Cup. 

“Lots of memories,” says Sexton. “We were 16 so there’s not too many we can talk about!
We were all in one room, there was 35 of us in one room.

“There were triple bunk beds so you can imagine getting in at midnight was one problem and then I suppose not getting any sleep was the other problem… the fact that there was 35 in one room with no air con.”

Hammond, a cousin of Dundalk football coach Vinny Perth, remembers massive blocks of ice being dragged into the room to cool the place down.

Hammond’s role on this particular trip to Japan is certainly a more stressful and time-consuming one. Himself and Murphy regularly work through the night to ensure that Schmidt – who also never sleeps after games himself – has all the analysis clips he needs. 

“It’s good,” says Hammond of working for Schmidt, before cracking a joke: “Look, when arrived here, he said, ‘There’s a beach trip on Tuesday and Thursday if you want to go!’

vinny-hammond James Crombie / INPHO Hammond sits alongside Schmidt and his coaches during games. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“No, no, it’s the same as ever. I guess one of the positives is that because you know the structure of the tournament and you know what is coming if you were to go quarter-final, semi-final, final, you do have a lot of the work done and we’ve got maybe five analysts back in Dublin working.

“The way the different time zones work, it’s handy. When we’re asleep, they’re working, so we’re getting stuff when we wake up in the morning.

“But Joe has been great, no problems!”

Hammond and co. have been building towards this World Cup quarter-final for a long, long time now.

“As soon as the World Cup draw was made, you know the likelihood is you’re going to face New Zealand or South Africa, so for us we’ve been planning that for a year,” he explains.

“We just wouldn’t have enough time if we got up this morning and said, ‘Ok, let’s have a look at New Zealand.’ It’s a long way out but you have to plan the way through to the final from an analysis point of view because if we were to get there, you only have a week to prep and you have to have that done.

“It’s not realistic to get that done in the week of the game.”

So, having studied the All Blacks as closely as anyone, what sets them apart?

vinny-hammond Dan Sheridan / INPHO Hammond feels the All Blacks' clinical edge sets them apart. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Hammond pauses for a long while here, probably working through all the Kiwis’ qualities before settling on one.

“I think it’s being clinical,” he says. “If they get a chance, they take it and I think that’s what every team aspires to be.

“I think Japan had a couple of chances early [against Scotland] and they scored off them.

“It changes the whole tone of the game.

“I think that’s what we have to have really – when we get a shot, fire it.”

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