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Dublin: 12°C Thursday 28 January 2021

'We did hold stuff back' - Sexton ready to launch Ireland's true World Cup attack

The Ireland out-half sat down with The42 to talk playing flat, analysis, Super Rugby and power plays.

HE’S IRELAND’S TACTICAL leader on the pitch, very much the embodiment of Joe Schmidt’s ideas.

That duty comes naturally with the out-half position of course, but Johnny Sexton has elevated himself to a status as among the very best in the world with his ability to read the game and make strong decisions.

Jonathan Sexton Conor Murray and Sexton have an established connection. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton has thrived under Schmidt’s coaching and structures, first at Leinster and then at international level with Ireland. Michael Cheika and David Knox came in for praise from Sexton too when we sat down with him in the build-up to today’s clash with Canada.

Now 30 years of age, it would appear that this World Cup falls at the ideal time for Sexton. The Dublin man has changed with maturity and experience, but his appetite for success on the pitch is undiminished.

Two years with Racing Métro, now known as Racing 92, were marked as a failure by some critics, but Sexton is positive about his experience in France. Playing in the Top 14 both challenged his thinking on the game and reinforced ideas he held before moving.

“It’s a little bit of both,” says Sexton. “It’s very different over there. Even the French style of play, it’s not as structured, so I was trying to encourage structure.

For example, if you look at the forwards in Ireland they work quite closely around the ball, whereas over there a lot of the time a ruck happens and the forwards drop back and sort of stay in the line. I find it quite hard to play in that.

“With Southern Hemisphere teams, New Zealand and Australia, and with Joe, everything is flatter, closer to the gainline. It might be a bit tighter, but in France it seems to be the wider, the better and the deeper, the better.

“It’s hard if you haven’t played in that environment. I was getting the ball and looking outside me and not seeing anyone. I’d look back and they were sort of 20 metres from you, 15 metres deep. It’s just ingrained in them.

“It’s hard because the communication is hard. Their thing is always plus profound, which is deeper. I was saying, ‘How about you come a little bit closer and flatten up?’

“Because when the ball is in the air, it gives the defence time to get off the line and hit you, whereas if you’re flat and tight, the ball is in your hands straight away but you still hold defenders.”

Jonathan Sexton Sexton is the key tactical leader for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton stresses that neither way of thinking is right or wrong, instead pointing out that he had to adapt to the French style in his time at Racing.

After the Irishman’s first season with the Parisian club, they were eager to sign him on for another “three, four, five years,” but after an injury-stricken second campaign, Sexton jokes that “they would have just said ‘Thanks a lot for your time.’”

There’s frustration looking back on that second season when he didn’t get on the pitch as much as he hoped to, but it’s in the past now. A Leinster and IRFU player once again, Sexton has appreciated a summer that has allowed him to prepare for this World Cup in the ideal way.

Just in pre-season for example, I had nine weeks of really good training and good work, whereas over the last two summers I’ve had two weeks of preparation and then back into pre-season games,” says Sexton.

“The way I’m being looked after here on and off the pitch, training time, etc. is important. I made it clear that I didn’t want to leave that in the first place, but that’s life.”

Indeed it is, and life has ensured that Sexton and Schmidt have never truly been separated as rugby foils, the out-half continuing to steer the Ireland ship during his stint with Racing.

Sexton is a self-confessed rugby nerd who loves to watch the sport when he is not playing. The Highlanders, this year’s Super Rugby champions, have been a particular favourite of his on early Friday or Saturday mornings.

“I watch a lot of rugby, I do,” says Sexton. “I watch a lot of the Super Rugby, and there are certain teams I like to follow, like the Highlanders with Tony Brown coaching them. There are good ideas there in how clever they play.

“From a tactical point of view, with their kicking, they really set the bar with that part of their game. You could see the planned kicks they had. Certain teams I’d watch more than others because I admire their play and the coaches they have.”

Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton Schmidt and Sexton have enjoyed major success together. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Interestingly, Sexton often avoids watching Ireland’s upcoming opponents in huge depth, preferring instead to come into analysis with Schmidt and his coaching staff without his own preconceived notions about the opposition.

“I don’t do as much opposition analysis as what others guys do,” says Sexton. “I used to do a lot and I found that when I came to the coaches’ meetings, I had seen a lot of the stuff already.

“I’d rather just have a fresh mind going into them, and not have things in my head already. I take on board what they say and do my own analysis of opposition individuals.”

Sexton has learned that obsessing over analysis is not the only route to success, even if it plays a vital role in the preparation.

“We try to be a team that can change things and show a different picture from game to game,” says Sexton.

Other good teams you play against do the same, so as much as analysis is important it can’t be the be all and end all. Good players and good teams change things and you’ve got to be able to react on the pitch.”

So how does Sexton engage with those more casual viewings of Super Rugby games? Is he looking to pick up ideas he can bring onto the pitch himself?

Our feeling is that the out-half is one of the few players who does have a say in how Ireland build their game plans. Schmidt’s word is final of course, but one can imagine Sexton querying things from time to time.

“We’re very lucky that we have good coaches here, so it’s not up to me to come in and bring new ideas,” says Sexton. “I think if Joe has ideas and we’ve got opinions on those ideas, we can share them.

“The more you play, the more experience you get, you can add your opinion into certain areas. I try leave it up to the coaches but I do have a small say in certain areas.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton's place-kicking will be vital at the World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“But I’m not going to come in here and say to Joe, ‘I saw a Super 15 team do this.’ At the same time, in the future, I’d like to go into some role in rugby and to have that bank of knowledge will come in handy, I suppose.”

Sexton has almost pre-empted our next thought, that of a potential future in coaching. He still has many years of playing ahead of him in all likelihood, but a sharp rugby mind like his seems built to move into the coaching world eventually.

One issue may be Sexton’s own unwillingness to accept anything but the very highest quality from those around him.

“I hope I’ve got years ahead of me playing,” says the out-half. “Sometimes I think I’d definitely love to go into coaching, but when I do picture myself in a coaching environment, I always picture myself coaching Leinster and living at home, coaching a really good calibre of player.

It doesn’t always work like that and I think as a coach sometimes you’ve got to go away and work in another environment and you’ve got to build your reputation up.

“If you’ve got a family that doesn’t want to move, maybe it’s going to be tough. It’s so far away from now, but it’s something I think about.”

And so we swing back to talk of France. Ronan O’Gara has gone to the Top 14 to build his coaching reputation, Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast are doing it at Grenoble, while others like Jeremy Davidson are also in France.

That is of interest to Sexton, but he also hints at potentially following in Paul O’Connell’s footsteps for a career-closing playing stint in l’Hexagone.

“We’ve talked about would we like to go back to France in the future,” says Sexton of himself and wife Laura. “I’ve got a very long-term contract here, which is what I wanted, and my idea would be to finish my career here and keep playing for Leinster and Ireland for as long as I can.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton places heavy demands on those around him. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I think the way Paulie is doing it is going to be something for guys coming towards the end of their international career, they might save a year to go and live the life down in the south of France.

“The older you get over there, the more valuable you are! Here, it’s the opposite. Once you start hitting 33 or 34, they start talking about one-years and adjusting the contract here, but in France the older, the better.”

That’s all to come, whether it be coaching, playing on into old age, or getting out of rugby for good.

Right now, World Cup ambition hogs Sexton’s mind space. One of the big questions around Schmidt’s Ireland is exactly how much they held back in the World Cup warm-up games.

What have we not seen from Ireland in terms of set-piece strike moves, power plays, even more general tactics?

“It was about trying to win the warm-up games, but at the same time we did hold stuff back,” says Sexton. “For certain games in Joe’s tenure, we have held stuff back and then it’s come to the game and we’ve wanted to actually use them.

Sometimes we haven’t got the platform to play them off. There’s two games in particular, in November when we won against South Africa and Australia, we won but we kicked a lot of ball and won penalties.

“We were being labeled as a kicking team, but we had quite a lot of running plays planned for those games. We just maybe lost a lineout, or won a penalty off a scrum, or played the first two phases of a power play and then the ball got slowed down.”

Sexton is a firm believer that the few times Ireland have faced criticism during Schmidt’s tenure have been after games that saw them just miss out with some of the power plays and set-piece moves the Kiwi head coach has built for them.

One minor detail being slightly off can be the difference between scoring a brilliant try and no one even noticing Ireland’s best-laid plans.

“Certain running moves that we had planned against Wales this year away (in the Six Nations), that we got unbelievably close to,” says Sexton.

IrelandÕs Jonathan Sexton The Ireland out-half hopes to see Schmidt's strike plays work at the World Cup.

“We were one small thing away from a clean linebreak and maybe a try on three or four occasions.

“There were a lot of little trick plays planned where we had seen space before the game and with three or four of them we were one small thing away from cracking them. It could have been the difference.”

For one of those plays, Sexton says “I was ahead of the ball, anticipating the linebreak,” his belief being that Ireland would get their detail spot on and make the break close to the ruck.

Ireland will have a handful more up their sleeve for the World Cup, and Sexton is excited to finally unleash them, just as long as the platform is right and everyone carries out their role to perfection.

For Schmidt’s squad, there are few greater satisfactions.

“In the England game the first year we won the Six Nations (2014), when Rob scored underneath the posts, plays like that,” says Sexton.

I think every single one of us, everyone in the coaches’ box, everyone sitting on the bench, everyone enjoys it. Rob would get the five points in that example, but the whole team, every single one of us, would have a role to play.

“We get great satisfaction from them. They don’t always work, but if we’ve got them right there’s a good chance of them working.”

Realistically, these plays are only a single part of Ireland’s approach to winning games, but whatever their game plan involves, Sexton will be the man the majority of it flows around.

“We have those type of plays but at the same time we’ll have certain tactics for certain areas of the pitch. It’s not set in stone, and it’s very much flexible. Guys have to play with their heads up.”

Heads up and flat to the line, don’t forget.

– First published 00.10

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Murray Kinsella

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