It’s been a mixed year so far for Johnny Sexton.
The Ireland and Leinster out-half had an incredible 2018 where he helped his province to a PRO14 and European Cup double while also massively contributing to Ireland’s success where they achieved a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia and of course, beating the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium in November.
His form resulted in him winning World Rugby Player Of The Year for 2018 but the second half of the 2018/19 campaign has been less successful.
Ireland finished third in this year’s Six Nations which included disappointing defeats to England at home and Wales in Cardiff while although Leinster lifted the PRO14 title thanks to a win over the Glasgow Warriors, they suffered heartbreak in the Champions Cup final defeat to Saracens.
It’s safe to say that 2018/19 has been a rollercoaster season and with the 2019 World Cup in Japan now on the horizon, Sexton admits that lifting silverware at Celtic Park was certainly a much-needed boost.
“It was a boost because it was tough up to that point,” Sexton said as part of MACE’s, “Going the Extra Smile” campaign.
“We had a lot of high points during the season – some of Leinster’s performances in Europe, the All-Blacks game, the French game in Six Nations – but also a lot of lows. The Wales game was like a Cup final and then there was the European Cup final against Saracens. Those losses will live with you forever, so to put a small high point on the end of it, it does change your form for the summer holidays.
“But it really doesn’t gloss over the losses. We were really devastated by the Wales game and European Cup final and they will go with us for the rest of the season and our careers.”
Sexton admits that you do learn things when you lose but he reveals that a lot can be taken from winning, the feeling of celebrating with your teammates in the knowledge that all the hard work you put in throughout the season has paid off is something to cherish. Ultimately, having experience on both ends of the spectrum can only benefit the players going forward.
“I know there’s a cliché about ‘only learning when you lose’ but when you win you do learn something, you learn how good it is, you learn everything that goes with winning, the celebrations and the memories you make. Those are the moments that you live for, that you play the game and try so hard for, so they are important.
“Of course, you learn things from losing but you also miss those winning moments so I think we’re in a good place now. No matter who’s going to the World Cup they’ve all won things – whether with Ireland or European Cups with Leinster. Everyone going to Japan knows what it’s like to win and also what it’s like to lose and I think that’s actually the best of both worlds.”
The question on many Irish supporters’ lips is where exactly are Ireland now as they head into the biggest tournament in the sport?
The disappointing nature of the Six Nations has cast a new light on this team and throughout the five games, the confidence and execution from the players were not up to the level which we saw in 2018.
Many have bought into the narrative that Ireland have peaked too soon but as you would expect, Sexton doesn’t believe this to be the case.
“If that’s people’s opinion that’s their opinion and there’s nothing you can do about it but I don’t think we’ve peaked. 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 people’s opinions can change in the space of a couple of months. 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.”
Sexton is setting his sights on Ireland’s warm-up games against Italy, England and Wales as an ideal opportunity to rebuild the confidence which saw them go to incredible heights in 2018.
This should then provide them with the ideal platform to do what no Irish side has done before, reach the semi-finals of the World Cup.
“Look, we’ve got time together now to really work on things through the summer. We’ll have some games beforehand to try and find our form and hopefully go to the World Cup knowing that, on our day, we can beat anyone but also have that fear that, on any day, we can lose to anyone as well.
“I think that’s a good place to be. You always need that fear factor and that confidence as well. We’ve got a mixture of both and I think that’ll bode well for us.”
Ireland have had some heartbreaking defeat at World Cups in recent times. In both of their most recent quarter-final appearances, against Wales in 2011 and Argentina in 2015, these were games which Ireland were expected to win.
Sexton admits that it’s a case of unfinished business when it comes to this tournament.
“For everyone that’s going its unfinished business. We feel we maybe let it slip at the last World Cup and there have been some regrets from some of the other ones I was at too.
“In 2011 we had that quarter-final against Wales, knowing that if we won that – and we’d beaten Wales a few times – that we could have had France in the semi-final. So, there’s always those regrets. That’s why we’ll be working extremely hard over the summer, to make sure we try and close those small margins in our favour and make sure we come away having done something special.”
Ireland rugby star Johnny Sexton visited Caherline National School, Limerick, to deliver a coaching masterclass to students as part of the MACE, “Going the Extra Smile” campaign.
Caherline National School won the prize thanks to their random act of kindness in their local community. MACE, Ireland’s longest-serving convenience brand, is rooted in local communities with over 160 stores nationwide.