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Sexton settles some scores, with even Schmidt in the line of fire

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Johnny Sexton used the Triple Crown success as the platform to fire back at detractors who had written off the Ireland team under Andy Farrell in the not so distant past. Former defence coach Farrell endured a difficult baptism as head coach after taking on the role at the start of the 2020 Six Nations.   

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Ireland were only marginally above breakeven after Farrell’s initial eleven matches in charge, six wins and five defeats in a sequence that culminated in the loss of the first two games of the 2021 Six Nations. It was the first time the Irish had fired successive blanks at the start of the tournament since 1998 and it sparked much criticism, especially with regards to their blunt attack. 

However, they have since enjoyed a huge upturn in fortunes, Ireland winning twelve of their 13 games since then – nine on the bounce before the February setback in Paris – and skipper Sexton sounded more than pleased that they now have a Triple Crown to show for their recent efforts.    

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Trying to hurt Martin Johnson and O’Driscoll and Sexton becoming Irish legends | Malcolm O’Kelly | All Access
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Trying to hurt Martin Johnson and O’Driscoll and Sexton becoming Irish legends | Malcolm O’Kelly | All Access

“It’s a very tight bunch,” he enthused when asked about the mood now that Ireland have some silverware to show following their 26-5 win over Scotland. “We have come from so low times. 

“You have got to remember only a couple of years ago we were being written off and the coaches were written off, the captain was being written off, the team was being written off. It’s a pretty fickle sport, isn’t it? We will keep our feet grounded because we know how fickle it is but like I said, I am just proud of this, to be part of this group. It’s a very special atmosphere.”

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Sexton even carried on to poke one in the eye of Joe Schmidt, the Ireland boss before Farrell ascended to the throne. Two World Cup quarter-finals were lost on Schmidt’s watch, while Sexton was also involved in the 2011 last-eight mishap in New Zealand against Wales.

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The potential looks now to be there, though, to finally shatter that ceiling and reach the last four of next year’s World Cup in France – and the veteran out-half is especially delighted that people in the Ireland squad are actively talking about achieving that target at that tournament rather than avoiding addressing it.   

“We have got great potential,” reckoned Sexton, who will be 38 by the time the finals kick off in September 2023. “That is what we have got at the moment and we have got to make it a reality. We have got to keep building over the next 18 months to make sure when it does come around. 

“We have taken a slightly different approach, we have started talking about it already, that this is the journey which is a different approach to previous management that I have worked under which I think is the right way to do it and we are confident in the journey that we are on. At the moment it is only an opportunity – we need to keep developing. 

“We had some young guys in during the week that were incredibly impressive. We have some young guys in the last year who have been incredibly impressive and we need to bring them up to speed to make sure they are ready in 18 months’ time and we get a few bolters, guys that can make a huge difference. That is what we will need over the next 18 months, we need to make the squad stronger and better.”

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Sexton revealed he hadn’t been as nervous in years as he was this weekend against Scotland. “I don’t think I have been as nervous for a game for a long time… It’s because this team means so much to me. To have something to show for all our hard work the last eight weeks it’s an incredible environment and it was more for the squad I was nervous. 

“I wanted us to play our best and we didn’t quite get there but we played pretty well at times. The most important thing was we showed guts, we showed everyone in the stadium what it means for us to play for Ireland.” 

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