Johnny Sexton is expecting that Wales will be as strong as ever when they play Ireland in their opening Guinness Six Nations match.
The Welsh regions’ performances have paled in comparison to that of the Irish provinces’, as no Welsh side managed to qualify for the knock out stages of the Heineken Champions Cup, while all four Irish sides made it to the last 16.
The Irish provinces outperforming the Welsh regions is nothing new however, and it certainly hasn’t acted as a reliable barometer for success for the Welsh national team, who pulled off a big upset by winning the Six Nations last year.
Ireland are the favourites to beat Wales on Saturday week, but Sexton is well aware of the Welsh ability to win when very few expect them.
Johnny Sexton on Ireland’s upcoming clash with Wales.
“It’s a big rivalry isn’t it? Over the years they haven’t been shy in saying that they’re not mad about the Irish. So I think big rivalries make for unpredictable fixtures,” Sexton said.
“We’re coming up against the champions, coming up against a team that beat us last year and we want to do something in this championship and the best way to do that is to start off with a good performance, that’s what all our focus will be on over the next 10 days.”
Although the regions’ recent weak performances certainly can’t seen as a positive development for Wales, Sexton acknowledged that it will likely mean quite little when the Six Nations kicks off.
“They love playing for Wales. They are different players when they play for Wales,” Sexton explained.
“They’ll turn up 100 per cent ready to go and like I said, they won the championship last year and they were so close to winning the grand slam and they’re to be reckoned with.
“They’ve had a good November so they’ve got some momentum too and it’s going to be a great battle.”
It’s nearly here. ⏳
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‘Helping out the young players is huge.’
There are a number of new faces in Ireland’s Six Nations squad this year, with uncapped duo Mack Hansen and Mike Lowry included, while Connacht’s Cian Prendergast has also been brought in as a development player.
There are a number of other players with very little international experience, such as Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Dan Sheehan and Gavin Coombes, who may need help in getting familiar with the environment.
Sexton has plenty of experience to call upon, and explained that one of the most important parts of being a captain is being able to make those young players feel at home.
“Helping out the young players is a huge part for me but also for the leadership group – making sure that they feel comfortable,” Sexton explained.
“Then just being yourself really and making sure you set a good example so that they see what it takes to prepare for an international rugby match.
“That’s the most important thing and then the second is making them feel comfortable and helping in any way you can.
“But we’ve got a great group of people here that no one feels they can’t ask for help and they can’t come to another player. So that’s credit to the management for creating that culture and it’s very easy to buy into for senior players and new players.”