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'It's amazing how focused people get on one game' - Sexton says Ireland can rediscover attacking edge

Elements of Ireland’s play have come in for criticism following the Six Nations defeat to France.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

AS SIX NATIONS weeks go, sometimes the build-up to the annual spring fixture against Italy can feel a little low-key.

Not so much this year. There is a lot going on in the world of Irish Rugby at the moment, and that was before Johnny Sexton’s off-the-cuff remark that the end may be coming sooner than we had thought.

The out-half played down those words in the second half of his weekly captain’s briefing yesterday, describing it as “a throwaway comment.”  

“What am I going to say? That I’m guaranteed to be at the next World Cup at my age?” Sexton asked. “Obviously I don’t have a three-year contract, it’s season-by-season so it was nothing really.”

A conversation for another day perhaps, as Ireland have more immediate concerns on their hands.

The players and coaches might be saying otherwise, but they go into Saturday’s game against the Azzurri under real pressure. 

Winning against Italy isn’t enough in itself. Ireland are in search of a performance that proves they still have some kind of attacking nous after the blunt displays against both Wales and France which yielded a total of two tries scored, the lowest return in the competition to this point.

“I know this word confidence comes up but we haven’t lost confidence, we’re not going into games with a lack of confidence,” said Sexton, who is expected to lead Ireland out against Italy after missing the France loss through injury.

“Part of it in the French game… It was absolutely bucketing down as we left the hotel after the team-talk but then you arrive at kick-off and it is a perfect day.

“So you’ve prepared maybe to play a certain type of game and we didn’t adapt when the weather cleared up and the space was somewhere else. We were so focused on it being windy and rainy, terrible conditions so keep the ball ahead of our forwards. And then suddenly things change.

“I’ve been guilty of it before on teams I’ve played for,” he continued, referencing a trip to Clermont with Leinster. “You’ve expected it to be a certain way all week but then it changes.”

Ireland would expect to beat Italy if playing in a hurricane or a heatwave, so a repeat of the same lack of variety or invention in Rome would spark real concern. 

For their part, the players sound as if they are keen to play exciting rugby.

Sexton was asked if he places much importance on how many tries the team score and the amount of offloads they throw, or does the style of rugby come second to doing whatever is deemed most likely to produce results.

“A little bit of everything. You want to win but we work on all of those things,” he said.

“Off the top of my head, I remember against Wales one good offload Robbie [Henshaw] gave to Josh [van der Flier], which we did score a try from. There was another in the second half when Garry [Ringrose] tried to get it to me in a tackle and we turned the ball over and we conceded a try.

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garry-ringrose-offloads-to-johnny-sexton Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“So offloads are as good as the decision-making that goes with them. It is something we work towards. Obviously when you compare it to France and the way they threw the ball out of the tackle, it stuck a couple of times, it was a bit loose at times.

“To offload, you need to be dominating the collision, you need to be running through tackles, getting the ball into space and then those offloads will come.

“We’ve got guys who are brilliant offloaders. Just because it didn’t happen in one game doesn’t mean it’s not part of our game, do you know what I mean? It’s amazing how focused people get on one game and all the opinion and everything is driven on one game but we’ll keep working in here.”

When pressed about Ireland’s struggles going forward earlier this week, Ireland attack coach Mike Catt turned the focus back onto the players, stating their decision making on the pitch needed to improve and calling for the team’s ‘deep thinkers’ to ease up.

“I think it’s more about our intent,” Sexton continued.

“We’re working on I suppose the structure of our attack to allow us to get the ball to wherever the space is. Then you’ve got to go and attack it, get all of the thoughts out of your head and play what you see.

“Sometimes guys, they’re so determined to do well they can get in their own way, and I’ve been that guy before where you’re so keen to do the right thing and you force it or you miss an opportunity because you’re trying too hard.

“I don’t know exactly what he [Catt] said but we spoke about that in terms of the balance between structure and getting our heads up and attacking to wherever the space is and doing it together and communicating to each other better.

“So there’s been lots of stuff we’ve taken away from the French game. The frustrating part is that it was probably some of the lessons that we carried from last year which is the annoying thing. To improve as a team you need to learn the lessons and not go back a step.”

The trip to Rome offers Ireland a perfect stage to take some of the heat off. A first win of the campaign married with a handful of promising moments in attack will provide a platform for further improvement against Scotland and England.

“Yeah, there’s a massive onus on our attack [this weekend],” Sexton says.

“Since Faz has come in the thing that we’ve worked on the most is our attack in unstructured play. With Joe we were absolutely brilliant off set-piece and we had some real intricate plays and they worked for us and we were incredibly good at the breakdown and retaining the ball.

“But I think some of the conversations I had with you guys [the media] was the frustration in and around what we were doing in our phase stuff. Faz has come in, he’s changed that and we’ve expanded our game and there have been some games where we’ve done it really well for parts of the game.

“But international rugby is like that, isn’t it? You don’t go out and dominate 80 minutes every game. That’s why it’s Test rugby, because it’s tough and it’s a battle and you don’t have your own way the whole time.”  

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