Sexton is back from his hamstring injury. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

'The Triple Crown would be a great thing and it's guaranteed if we win the last three'

Johnny Sexton is back to lead Ireland’s push for silverware in this Six Nations.

THERE’S A SMILE on Johnny Sexton’s face as he admits that he’s not the best spectator in the world, but he certainly didn’t enjoy the latest experience of it.

No one likes missing out through injury, of course. 36-year-old Sexton finds it truly hellish. 

Sitting in the stand at Stade de France two weekends ago, Sexton was more than uncomfortable. The Ireland captain had to watch on as France took an early lead and then clung onto their advantage despite the visitors rallying in the second half. 

Sexton did his best to appreciate the raucous crowd in Paris – where there was volume that some of the Irish team had never really experienced – and remind himself that Ireland could well be back at that venue several times at next year’s World Cup.

“That’s what I tried to do during the game – soak in the atmosphere, feel what it’s like in the stadium and use it as motivation,” says the Ireland skipper.

“Also to remember what it’s like so that if we do go back, potentially we’ve got two pool games, a potential quarter-final, potential semi-final, and final all in that stadium. So I tried to soak in as much of it as I could.”

Mercifully for Sexton, his stint on the sidelines has been short-lived. He is fully fit again after his hamstring injury and is set to return to Ireland’s number 10 shirt against Italy on Sunday after Joey Carbery slotted in at out-half in Paris.

Ireland’s shot at a Grand Slam is over as France look to keep theirs going this weekend away to Scotland. 

But Sexton and co. are intent on staying in the hunt in case the French slip up. They will look for every single point and try possible against Italy this weekend, while there is guaranteed silverware if Andy Farrell’s side win their last two Six Nations games against England and Scotland.

johnny-sexton-looks-on Sexton watching on in Paris. Dave Winter / INPHO Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

“We spoke about it, that if we win our last three games we are guaranteed the Triple Crown obviously,” says Sexton.

“I came up in an era when they were winning Triple Crowns for fun but then you look into history and we have won 11 Triple Crowns which is very few when you think about it over the last 100 years.

“It would be a great thing and it’s guaranteed if we win the last three. Of course, we give ourselves a great shot at the title if we win the last three because France have to go to Scotland this week and Wales and then play a good England team in France as well. 

“So it’s not over but we have to hold up our end of the bargain. 

“We have got to get our performance right this weekend, first and foremost, and then back up with two very tough games as well so it’s all to play for. It’s a tough competition to win from here but if we back ourselves and we can get our best performances out there then we have a chance.”

While he wasn’t on the pitch last time out, Sexton learned plenty from Ireland’s defeat at Stade de France.

“You learn as much watching,” he says. “You don’t want to watch and learn but you do. Being in the dressing room and listening to what people say, you go, ‘If I was there, maybe I would have said this,’ and you learn if that was the right thing.

“You’re always thinking and trying to improve even when you’re not playing. We’ve got this week against Italy at home which is a very different game but then you fast forward against England and you’re in that cauldron again, away game, full crowd, so there’s lots of learnings to take into this team’s journey.”

The Leinster man is firmly in agreement with Ireland boss Farrell that focusing on what some have perceived as Ireland’s relative lack of physicality against the French would be foolish.

johnny-sexton Sexton and Ireland are still in the hunt. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell said last week that it would be a “trap” for Ireland to think that a difference in physicality had been decisive and suggested that Irish teams had fallen into it before.

Sexton is in agreement.

“I can talk about when Leinster went over to La Rochelle in the semi-final  [of the Champions Cup last season] and everyone said, ‘Ah, they just got beaten up.’

“But no, you can look into that and say that but if you want to learn properly, you go, ‘Where in the game could we have avoided some of the…’ because they [France] have bigger men, we have to get over that.

“They’re not way bigger, we’ve got some big men too, but some of the detail in our play wasn’t where it should have been which allowed them to dominate some collisions where against other teams that are also very physical, like New Zealand, we were able to move the ball to certain areas of the pitch or get soft shoulders and win the rucks easier, get quick ball, and play our game.

“We just weren’t quite on point at that and yeah, it’s very easy to go ‘We lost the physical battle.’

“There were lots of instances where we won the physical battle but we just weren’t accurate enough through the full game and it’s something we need to learn from because it’s not the first time it’s happened to us. But it’s the first time in a while and hopefully it will reset us and we’ll go again.”

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