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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 13 November, 2019
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'It'll be raw for four years': Sexton looks back on World Cup woe and forward to whatever's next

The Ireland number 10 is hungry for competition again after parting ways with Joe Schmidt.

HOW WILL 2019 be remembered for Ireland’s rugby team?

“As a failure. You can have opinions on why, but it is a failure,” says Jonathan Sexton.

It’s the biggest disappointment of his career, he agrees. But then counters that the next disappointment will be too.

jonathan-sexton Sexton during the Heineken Champions Cup launch photocall at the Principality Stadium. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Sexton was back in blue yesterday, but still wore the same pained expression across his face that had been etched on the night of the quarter-final defeat to New Zealand.

The out-half looked like he might have rathered be anywhere else than this seat in the middle of the media jamboree that is the Heineken Champions Cup launch. Who could blame him?

Still, while he was tense, he was never terse as the inquisition into Ireland’s World Cup woes rumbled on. Answers are not easy to come by. No one thing was at the root of Ireland’s drop-off in form and Sexton returned to underline that sentiment during the course of his response.

Where hard assessments and critiques are required, he is unlikely to air them to the media in a crowded president’s suite in Cardiff.  However, there is a review process already in the works with an independent body brought to give players an opportunity to be open and honest, separate from their employers and authority figures.

“It will happen behind closed doors with the IRFU and they will employ a company to come in and ask us questions,” says Sexton.

“No one will be as honest as we will be with each other. But it’s important that we stick together. We were in it together and that is the most important thing.

“We were a team and we will take responsibility as a team with the coaches and the senior players.

“The IRFU, the leadership group and the coaches will do what they can with the information.”

Among the earliest theories posited for Ireland’s disappointing campaign was presented by Isa Nacewa and Brian O’Driscoll. Well-connected Leinster legends who felt that Ireland in 2018 enjoyed a bounce thanks to Stuart Lancaster’s influence in the eastern province and had since reined in their stylistic ambition.

It was a theory Sexton seemed to be hearing for the first time when it was put to him yesterday. The walls of the bubble in tact, he is asked if he felt the 2018 Grand Slam winners had stagnated somehow once the World Cup came into view.

“We didn’t improve enough. We didn’t evolve as much, but that is all in hindsight. We obviously tried to and we didn’t. It’s tough to take.

jonathan-sexton Sexton during the Heineken Champions Cup launch photocall at the Principality Stadium. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Look, we haven’t done a review process yet and we will. We will sit down and we will be as honest with each other about things, so we can learn going forward. But every World Cup is different. I know everyone wants to say, ‘oh it’s a quarter-final again, you didn’t do this and that.’

“But each quarter-final has been different. What hurts the most is that we didn’t play as best we could, so we will never know.

“We know coming into this World Cup that it was going to come down to the quarter-final and it was going to be South Africa or New Zealand.

“So it was blatantly going to be unbelievably tough. There was a good likelihood that we were going to lose in a quarter-final. It was going to be a 50-50 game at best against a top quality team.

“Where it hurts us is that we didn’t play as well as we can or as well as we could have. Or as well as I thought we prepared, so we will never know what we could have done. That’s the part that hurts.”

A little over two weeks since he arrived back from Japan, is it still raw?

“Yeah, It’ll be raw for four years. It’ll be raw for lads that go to the next World Cup for the next four years. For the lads that don’t, for the rest of their careers. For the rest of their lives, really.

jonathan-sexton Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It meant that much to us. But like I said, we have to go and look at everything we did. Was it good enough? Only you know yourself if you prepared as well as you could.”

Preparation was an element that Schmidt reached for in the wake of the 46-14 loss to New Zealand. In his eyes, training had been ‘flat’ with players carrying niggles. Pre-match Sexton had been reporting a superb training week. The Leinster captain, potentially the next Ireland skipper, maintains that both can be true. Schmidt with his vantage point of the big picture, Sexton from his post on the pitch.

Indeed, while their reports of the final week in Japan differ, the out-half uses a warm vocabulary when speaking about the man who is now his former coach. There is a familial bond of sorts tying Sexton to his former coach. They worked together hand in glove since 2010, succeeding in every task except the one we are lamenting now.

“The year we’ve had, if you go back before Joe’s time, it’s probably a normal year. I think it would be a normal year for Ireland. We’ve set the standards differently and it’s been a failure for the standards we’ve set.

“I was going on, during the Six Nations when we had a bad period of performance, that we still had won 23 of 26 internationals which is pretty phenomenal. We just couldn’t produce our best when it mattered and that’s going to hurt us for a long time.”

They have spoken since the loss to the All Blacks. Nothing major, just a chat and a handover of responsibilities. And just like that, one of the great coach-player partnerships ended.

“We were in Japan for a couple of days post it. He was still around and we had a small chat, not so much about (the World Cup), a little bit about the six years – and for me it was nine years.

“It’s strange already, he was the guy you had to go to even for, ‘right, what games am I playing?’ ‘What holidays am I taking?’

“He handed over to Faz at the end of the World Cup, Faz explained how it was going to work. It’s different already. It was different that day when Joe says, ‘right Faz is going to take you…’

“It’s over. You know what I mean?

“There’s not many positives to take from it, but Faz has a chance now to really stamp his style and authority on us. It’s exciting now, another chance to come back.”

joe-schmidt-speaks-with-jonathan-sexton-after-the-game Schmidt and Sexton speak after the win over Scotland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’m sure (Schmidt) has got plenty to keep him busy over the next year. I think he should get back into the game. He gave so much to Leinster and Irish rugby. He’s had that impact and it would be scary if he took over France or somewhere with their players and resources.

“I don’t know what he’ll do next. He’s living in Dublin for the foreseeable future, so I’m sure we’ll see him around. He’s someone I hope to stay in contact with for the rest of my career and beyond.

“We became close over the years – I know lads slag us about it – but that’s what happens with a 10 and a coach. But you’re always evolving and I’m looking forward to meeting Mike Catt hopefully, if they pick me, to work with him.”

At 34, Sexton’s own future merits a talking point. Felipe Contepomi wasn’t prepared to look ahead to the next World Cup assuming his successor as Leinster 10 would be retired before France 2023. Sexton himself isn’t ready to put a limit or target on how long he is prepared to play for.

He has thrown the longevity of Tom Brady and Brad Thorn into conversation over the years and, armed with that inspiration, he leaves open the possibility of joining the short list of 38-year-olds to have played at the Rugby World Cup – currently just Victor Matfield and Luke Thompson – though Uruguay’s Diego Ormaechea was 40 when he played in 1999.

“I want to take it season by season at the moment. I am contracted for this season and for next season. My body feels great. I am obsessed with trying to play for as long as I can.

“I spoke to a lot of guys who have done that, guys that I have been surrounded by, whether it is Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn, Paul O’Connell, Rory Best, Peter Stringer, Donnacha O’Callaghan… I’ve tried to tap into their minds and what they did.

“A lot of them when they finished in the end had a bad knee or hip or joint. I am very lucky that I have not had many, touch wood. 

“I am still hungry. I have never relied on my speed, so I do not have to worry too much about that. At out-half I am trying to avoid contact as opposed to going into contact. 

So look, there are lots of things to suggest that I can keep going. But I want to keep playing at the top. The day that Leo or Stu says to me: ‘Look, I think it’s time to go’, I’ll go.

“Or if Andy Farrell says to me: ‘I think you have had enough’ or ‘we are not going to go with you anymore’, I will be the first to go. 

“I want to finish at the top. Whether that happens or not over the next few years, we’ll see. There have been plenty of 37 year-olds going to Rugby World Cups and I would love to add my name to that list. But, there are lots of things that have to happen.”

Stepping stones, rungs on the ladder. Among them will surely be another run with the Lions in 2021 for a series against the world champions. But leading all the way up to that, Sexton’s focus will be drawn by a new era for Ireland and, most immediately, a chance to build on Leinster’s success in 2018 and 2019.

He will be glad just to get back on the horse. A new game, with new problems to work out and hurdles to cross are the best sure-fire way to move a little further beyond all the little moments that fed into Ireland’s World Cup woe. Until then, they’ll still swirl around Sexton’s head.

irelands-jonathan-sexton-kicks-to-touch

“It’s small margins,” he says, but he adds weight to take a well–worn phrase out of cliche territory.

“I kicked a kick against Samoa that goes in by that much to the five-metre channel. And against New Zealand I do the exact same kick, exactly as I would have practiced as I did the day before the game and it gets slapped back in.

“They are the things… we carved them open on a set-play and we run the wrong running line and run into each other.

“We don’t prepare to do that or we don’t plan it.”

Little things, and they all add up.

“There’s no one person at fault for this, there was no one person you can point the finger at. We’ll take responsibility together as senior players.

“People can point the finger at us. It’s not going to change how I feel about myself. I know myself what I did, what I could have done better, what I could have done more of.

“Those answers are for me to know.

“All you can do is look at yourself, try to improve and come back.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell  / Reports from Cardiff

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