Sexton still feels he has plenty to learn. Tommy Dickson/INPHO
johnny be good

Johnny, Paulie, missing teeth and spit – how to be the perfect captain

Johnny Sexton outlines how a conversation with Paul O’Connell turned him from the boy with a thorn in his side into this charming man.

IT SOUNDED A little like an episode of The Sopranos mixed up with a lost script from Father Ted. You had Johnny trying not to look aggressive, Paulie looking for his teeth.

Johnny Sexton was the narrator of this little story yesterday afternoon. Week one of his Ireland captaincy had gone well; a victory over Scotland complemented by his 19-point contribution.

But when you’re Johnny Sexton, Ireland captain, it isn’t just your performance that gets analysed but also your behaviour, particularly the manner in which you talk to referees.

So, when he was filling out his self-evaluation form post-Scotland, Sexton scribbled down a few cautiously happy notes. “There were a few things we felt we could have got him to check out (with the TMO) but I suppose the good part of it was that we had a good relationship,” Sexton said of his date with Mathieu Raynal, the referee from last Saturday’s game.

jonathan-sexton-and-referee-mathieu-raynal Sexton and referee Raynal had a good relationship. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“We listened to one another, worked together. You learn from past experiences. Like, one of the biggest lessons I ever learned from was the game in Thomond Park (against Munster in December 2018) where Frank (Murphy, the referee of that fiery match) kept calling me over.

“Look, I played with Frank, I’m friends with him. But every time he called me over, the crowd went absolutely crazy. And then on the couple of occasions I did speak with him, I had my hands out or was speaking over him, looking aggressive.

“What I was saying (to him) was perfectly reasonable and acceptable for a captain to say but the way it was portrayed was totally different. So for me it is about learning those lessons.”

Part of his education process involved reaching out to a few former captains – Paul O’Connell providing the most memorable tutorial. Like Sexton, O’Connell had noticed how certain captains struck the perfect balance between pressurising referees while retaining the pretence of diplomacy.

Alun Wyn Jones got a mention in dispatches for his understated skills in this capacity – and following this conversation with O’Connell, Sexton changed his approach.

“Paulie spoke to me about this time he was playing (for Munster) against the Ospreys and Romain Poite was ref. So Paulie took his gumshield out. But he had no teeth in. And he spits through his teeth.

Now bear in mind, Paulie looks angry at the best of times, even when he’s happy. In this instance, he was just standing over Romain Poite. What he was saying was, again, probably perfectly acceptable but the way it looked or the way Romain felt was maybe not quite right.

jerome-garces-speaks-to-paul-oconnell Sexton sought advice from O'Connell on how to speak to referees. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“Everyone makes mistakes in their game or in parts of their leadership and I’ve made plenty over the years but I’d like to think I’ve learned some good lessons.”

You’d certainly hope so. At 34, autumn is drawing to an end in his career, winter approaching. This may not be his last Six Nations but he has more yesterdays than tomorrows. And he knows it.

This was why he was able to contextualise the nature of last Saturday’s 19-12 win in such a positive manner. The performance may have been somewhat off; the scoreline certainly wasn’t flattering but he also remembers the results from the opening days of the 2016, 2017 and 2019 championships, when grand slams disappeared in an afternoon.

“That was the most pleasing aspect of it all,” he says of the Scotland win. “Had we drawn, then it would have been Triple Crown gone, grand slam gone. Those things we achieved in the past, we want to emulate again. We still can. We’re still alive.

I know the performance wasn’t perfect. We’re not trying to say it was. What we are saying is we hope to be better this week.”

They need to be, the Welsh showing in last Saturday’s 42-point win over Italy that the Wayne Pivac era has potential. Recent history is also in their favour, three Welsh wins and a draw coming from the last five championship meetings between these sides.

Yet there’s another stat that deserves a mention. Home advantage is such a significant factor in this competition – once you exclude the hapless Italians. We saw as much last weekend, Ireland and France coming out on top in one-score games. But delve further back through history’s scrapbook and you’ll see the pattern repeat itself.

Over the last five seasons, 35 of the 50 matches involving Ireland, France, Wales, Scotland and England have ended in victory for the hosts, a further two games ending level, 13 in wins for the away side. Tellingly, only two of those away wins – England’s 32-20 result in Dublin last year; Ireland’s 40-10 thumping in Murrayfield in 2015, were by a margin greater than 10 points.

Let’s put it even simpler terms. Since 2013, Ireland have lost only once at home but seven times on the road in this championship. The last time Wales won a Six Nations game here was in 2012. “These games are intense; they aren’t called tests for no reason,” Sexton said. “Every advantage counts.”

Particularly home advantage.

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