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'The hype, the interest, the pressure... It's what's great about the Six Nations'

Johnny Sexton says he still relishes the responsibility of being Ireland’s out-half and captain.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT’S ELEVEN YEARS since Johnny Sexton got his first proper taste of Six Nations rugby, jogging out for the last 10 minutes of a 33-10 defeat to France in Paris. It’s been quite the journey since, taking in a Grand Slam, three Six Nations championships and a World Rugby Player of the Year award – and that’s without looking at his Leinster CV.

At 35, he is still very much the man in possession of the Ireland No 10 jersey, the man who needs to be on song if Ireland are to improve on last year’s third-placed finish. His detractors say he’s too old and gets injured too often. He’d look around and ask, who’s better? 

Experience has taught him how to deal with the expectation that comes with wearing 10 on your back, but that’s not to say he doesn’t feel the pressure that comes with the opening week of a new Six Nations championship. A win in Cardiff on Sunday, and the championship opens up for Ireland. Defeat leaves them chasing their tail.

“I was only thinking it myself today when I was practicing my kicking, thinking ‘How has this not gotten easier?’… In many ways it’s gotten worse,” he says. “But it’s what’s great about the Six Nations isn’t it? It’s great. The hype, the interest, the pressure that you put on yourselves to try achieve for your country, it’s what we’ll miss when we finish I think.”

When exactly Sexton will finish remains one of the big topics in Irish rugby. His ambition to reach the 2023 World Cup is no secret, but recently his words have contained more caution when it comes to his future. That’s not to say he’ll be calling it quits anytime soon. 

Instead of easing his load, Sexton has taken on more responsibility in recent years. This will be his second Six Nations campaign as Ireland captain. If anything, his weeks are now busier than ever.

“I think the responsibility and the pressure, it probably does got up a gear with the responsibilities that you have (as captain). The extra things that you need to cope with during the week in terms of the extra media commitments, dealing with other squad (members), guys that are selected, guys who aren’t selected and making sure the team is prepared well. 

“When you’re not a captain you don’t have to worry about a lot of those things. You can just concentrate on yourself but I enjoy that extra responsibility. It does bring a little bit more pressure but I do enjoy it. I’d hate not to be doing it, that’s probably the right way to be putting it. So, it’s just about trying to enjoy it, (but) it’s easier said than done. 

“At the end of the day, when we all finish up at some stage, these are the days we’re going to miss and we’ll miss the pressure, we’ll miss the nerves and we’ll miss that level of adrenaline it gives you in your preparation. I think the nerves drive you to do that little bit more in practice or to do that little bit extra that makes a different. (You) Try and harness it in the right way.”

So, with all that experience in his locker, what does Sexton see as the key ingredients of a successful Six Nations campaign?

“A good start definitely helps, that’s for sure. We’ve had (good) campaigns and there’s always something that clicks. Whether that’s a new player or a few fresh faces coming in that give everyone a new impetus or lease of life, whatever you want to call it. It could be a new person on the coaching staff or someone in the backroom team can make a huge difference to communication.

“That’s often been the case over the years. Often, it’s the smallest of margins sometimes that can make it or break it.

“You go back to 2018, if we didn’t do what we did in the last five minutes (against France), that (Grand Slam) never happens, and we’re still talking about it.

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“That could easily have gone another way and sometimes it is the bounce of a ball, a score going your way or not going your way that can make a huge difference so it’s a little bit of luck, but sometimes you make your own luck as well. 

“It’s a mixture of those things.”

This week, Sexton can look around him and genuinely feel good about Ireland’s chances. He’s fit and ready for selection. So is Garry Ringrose. So are Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson. The loss of Caelan Doris and Jacob Stockdale are the only headline absentees when it comes to selecting a starting XV, but Hugo Keenan looked set to win the full-back race anyway and Ireland aren’t exactly short of options when it comes to the wings or backrow.

johnny-sexton Sexton during an Ireland training session. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think it is a great boost that have all those names back fit. We haven’t had them enough over the last year,” Sexton continues.

“Garry’s had a bad run when you consider some of the luck which goes with some of the injuries: a broken thumb, a broken jaw twice. That’s just bad luck and it can happen to anyone. He’s the most professional guy you can ever meet. He’s so diligent in everything he does and to have him back and the other guys, Tadhg and Hendy, is a big part of our front five.

“It just gives you more doesn’t it? Whether it’s off the bench or starting, we don’t know the team properly to tell the truth, the team’s being announced (to the squad on Thursday morning), so whatever it is we’ll have a very competitive squad. Training today was competitive which was great. Both sides looking over at the other side and saying, ‘half of those lads were playing’… It’s just a mixed team basically and you couldn’t tell which was the first team. It’s a good place to be but we have to go out and do the business now to reflect that. 

“It would be terrible if we had all these guys fit and didn’t play great.”

– First published 01.01, 4 February

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