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Sexton insists Ireland have not already peaked as he takes aim at World Cup

With a Grand Slam and a first-ever home win over New Zealand, 2018 was a tough act to follow for Ireland.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IRELAND OUT-HALF Johnny Sexton has railed against the notion that this Ireland team peaked in 2018 as he targets a return to form in time for the Rugby World Cup.

Victory over the All Blacks in November, for just the second time in Ireland’s history, put Joe Schmidt’s men in a position to take over the world number one ranking. However, the 2018 Grand Slam winners were unable to maintain their dominance into this year’s Six Nations and punishing losses to England and Wales book-ended a disappointing campaign.

“I didn’t think we’d peaked when we won the Grand Slam and I didn’t think we’d peaked when we beat the All Blacks either. It’s amazing how peoples’ opinions can change in the space of a couple of months,” Sexton said in quotes released after he appeared for Mace’s ‘go the extra smile’ marketing campaign.

“We beat the All Blacks and all the (public) talk was ‘nothing’s going to stop us
winning the World Cup’ and then, three or four games later, we’re the worst team
ever and people think we peaked.”

The Leinster captain added that the pre-season training and pre-tournament matches ahead will give the national side time to work on their game and find form ahead of pivotal opening matches against Scotland and hosts Japan in September.

Ireland have never advanced beyond the quarter-final stage at the Rugby World Cup, but Sexton is intent on righting some wrongs at the ninth time of asking.

“For everyone that’s going it’s unfinished business. We feel we maybe let it slip at the last World Cup and there’s been some regrets from some of the other ones I was at too,” he said with a nod to the 2011 quarter-final loss to Wales in Wellington before moving on to a question about the 2015 exit while he was among Ireland’s injury absentees.

“I kind of knew when I came off against France (in 2015 pool phase) that I was going to miss the Argentina game. Sitting and watching that then was very, very tough. You want to be out there with the guys, contributing with them and being in the dressing room afterwards was probably the lowest point, watching the lads suffering and not being part of it as well.”

Johnny Sexton being greeted by students from Caherline National School Sexton visited Caherline National School, Limerick, to deliver a coaching masterclass to students as part of the MACE, “Going the Extra Smile” campaign. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The trip will be a second taste of Japan for Sexton as his secondary school rugby team toured there when he was 16. While the playmaker sounded as though he was bemoaning the hype inflation and deflation around 2018, he is looking forward to the ‘special’ atmosphere of the World Cup for similar reasons.

“World Cups are pretty special because you feel like the whole country gets behind you. Sometimes you kind of lose sight of it because you’re so wrapped up in a bubble away from the country and what’s happening at home.

“For me I always think back to soccer World Cups and any big soccer tournaments that Ireland were involved in and think about the hype about it at home, when everyone’s just living for that next game.

“The support we get even away brings you back to that. Even though we’re in Japan for this one I’d say we’ll still get a crazy amount of Irish people over there. That’s always the way with Ireland and makes it very special for us.

“In 2015 the (World Cup) matches were like home games for us – that was the hardest part of losing to Argentina. The Millennium (stadium) was like a home venue for us that day, just packed with Irish people. They were incredible.”

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Sean Farrell

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