The master

Johnny Sexton revels in Grand Slam glory after 'weird, horrible' build-up week

The 32-year-old out-half found the pre-match days nerve-wracking.

WHEN JOE SCHMIDT sat down with his Ireland squad ahead of the 2018 Six Nations, their goal rapidly became clear.

Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, Rory Best and Rob Kearney – “the older guys,” as Sexton puts it – had little doubt about what they were setting out to do.

A third championship under Schmidt would be nice, sure, but this group of Irish leaders had a sense that their squad had the quality to go a step further.

Jonathan Sexton and Rory Best with the Six Nations trophy and the triple crown Johnny Sexton and Rory Best with the Triple Crown and Six Nations trophies. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s probably the first time we’ve been allowed speak about the Grand Slam before the campaign,” said Sexton on Saturday evening following Ireland’s impressive win over England had clinched it for them.

“We have always been very process-driven, so we spoke about it at the start and then parked it and went game by game. Literally.

“Even this week we didn’t speak about a Grand Slam; we just spoke about putting in
our best performance.”

The joy on Sexton’s face at the final whistle was in stark contrast to how he had felt over the days coming into the clash with the English.

“It has been a weird week, horrible in many ways,” said Sexton. “People were talking about us trying to enjoy it but I found it very tough to enjoy the build-up, it was nerve-racking at times. I’m just glad to get out the other side of it.

“We saved our best performance for last which is always very satisfying, and some of our defence was incredible. I know they scored a few tries but they are an outstanding team.

“You must give them credit for that. Our defence, I thought, was incredible. We made Andy [Farrell] proud on the first day back in Twickenham for him. I’m sure he’s proud
to be part of that effort.”

Farrell’s influence was obvious in that superb defensive performance from Ireland, but the rest of the game plan devised by head coach Schmidt was also intelligent.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates winning Sexton in the Ireland dressing room on Saturday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland’s players like to mock Sexton for being like a son to Schmidt, although even the notoriously demanding out-half finds his head coach to be hard work at times.

“He… eh, how do I put this nicely? At times during the week you are driven demented with him but you know he is doing it for a reason – putting pressure on you in training, at meetings to make sure on Saturday every box is ticked, to make sure all the prep is done.

“He is an incredible coach, his record with Irish teams speaks for itself. He was three years with Leinster and got six finals. Five years with Ireland and we have won three championships and a Grand Slam.

“The [2015] World Cup obviously didn’t go to plan but there are lots of reasons why that didn’t go to plan. Hopefully, we can have a good crack at the next one.”

Sexton and the rest of the old fogeys like Kearney and captain Best demonstrated their composure once again in Twickenham, their experience so crucial to Ireland’s controlled performance.

But the sheer level of physical impact made by younger stars like Tadhg Furlong, Dan Leavy and James Ryan was eye-opening.

“We spoke about that at the start of the campaign as well,” said Sexton. “In ’09 there were four or five guys who came into that squad and freshened things up – kept guys on their toes and brought this fearlessness.

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton celebrate winning Sexton with halfback partner Conor Murray. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Yeah, we couldn’t have done it without Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, these young guys have been exceptional.

“Dan Leavy’s performance today was incredible. James Ryan – I hate the fact that they are all from St. Michael’s, that drives me crazy, I wish a few more were coming out of St. Mary’s [Sexton's old school].

“Look, they are exceptional rugby players and people. Hopefully, they can keep their feet on the ground and have success going forward.”

Such a relentlessly driven character, it won’t be long before Sexton is striving for the next honour – with Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens just two weekends away.

But the 32-year-old will savour his first Triple Crown and first Grand Slam for a while before that.

“The celebrations were brilliant, celebrating with your family, they were all in the corner [of the stadium]. There was a big Irish contingent over.

“Celebrating with the lads for the hour after, they are the moments that you treasure, the moments that make the bad times worthwhile and all the sacrifices worthwhile.

“It’s a big high point in my career, a very strange feeling.”

– First published 07.45, 19 March

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