Six Nations: We took the wrong decision, we paid the price, says Sexton
Published 21/02/2012 | 10:47
The optics looked curious. Less than two minutes after George North's try had placed the minimum between the sides, and three minutes before the final whistle, Jonathan Sexton was hooked from the fray.
He was not alone. As he trudged off, the colleague alongside whom he zips and whizzes on provincial duty, Eoin Reddan, was completing this most bizarrely belated overhaul of the half-backs.
Leo Cullen once got eight seconds (against France last February) under this management's watch -- enough time for the Leinster lock to pull up one sock -- so perhaps we should not be surprised at such peculiar eccentricity.
Given that Sexton had only just managed to once more wrestle the starting jersey from Ronan O'Gara's grasp, it was little wonder that several former Irish internationals, assorted commentators and supporters everywhere queried the call.
The player himself, who in the game's build-up had so eloquently spoken of how difficult it had been for him to negotiate his recent international rugby career with one eye on the bench, yesterday backed his coach without reservation.
"It wasn't my decision," he smiles. Pressed as to whether he agreed with it, the player deferred to the collectivised script of the squad.
"Declan wanted to make a change and he brought on Ronan and Eoin to close out the game. That was it."
Days earlier, Sexton had spoken of how being replaced was "something you have to get used to, knowing somebody is ready to come on if things aren't going your way".
Things seemed to be going his way against Wales. Or, perhaps not.
Because there was further grist to the mill for those who wondered why such a pivotal change was made at such a vital juncture in proceedings; less than five minutes before his withdrawal, Sexton had missed a long-range effort on goal.
Since then, his captain, Paul O'Connell, has assumed a heap of opprobrium for not insisting the out-half kick for touch with the clock (seven minutes), scoreline (21-15) and numbers (Wales had a player binned) all in Ireland's favour.
Sexton yesterday confirmed he had asserted his authority over the kick; as most place-kickers do.
"You can look at it two ways," he explains. "If we didn't take it on maybe everyone would have said, 'you should have'. I was kicking them from there in the warm-up, it was in my range so we decided we would have a go.
"It would have put us nine points clear, they would have had to score twice, so I thought it was the right decision. We miss, we get the ball back in exactly the same position we were in and we get to try and keep the ball again.
"Obviously, if we'd gone to the corner you wouldn't know what would happen. Everything is easy to look at in hindsight or when you're sitting in the stand, but at the time we felt it was the right decision.
"Maybe late in the game it wasn't the easiest kick after playing 70 minutes of high-intensity rugby from my own perspective, but from a team perspective it was the right decision."
Decisions are made by the players on the pitch and the outcomes remain there. Despite the rampant conjecture from those in the stands and the living rooms, the ramifications of the individual choices don't linger. The result stung enough.
"I wasn't aware it was an issue," Sexton admits. "We didn't turn the ball over after that because I went for a kick at goal. We took a wrong decision, we didn't look after the breakdown, we turned it over, we paid the price.
"We were still leading with three minutes to go after making that mistake. Then we made a few more. I didn't realise it was an issue but now that you've asked me, I don't think it is."
Presuming he's selected again for the renewal of the World Cup pool clash against the luckless Italians this Saturday, Sexton probably knows at this stage that he is probably not guaranteed 80 minutes.
"I think I've done it plenty of times for Leinster," he says on greeting both first and final whistles on the field. "I've done it for Ireland as well. If (Kidney) decides to make a change late on, you know like the Welsh game, I've no problem.
"I hadn't played for a couple of weeks beforehand and maybe I was tiring a bit, and he just thought, 'bring on fresh legs for the last few minutes'.
"The Welsh had a lot of pressure on us at that stage of the game and he wanted fresh legs on. And you have to respect the coach's decision.
"I've had some great days in the green shirt and I've had some not so good days. I think it's not going to be perfect all the time. It's a different set-up, it's a different type of game, international rugby.
"I think it's something that I've learnt over the last year maybe. The first game against Wales, we hadn't played together for a few months, we had a week's preparation for it. It's not going to be perfect, but I think we'll get better as we go along. I'm sure we will."
Substitutions like that one against Wales -- and who can forget the Scottish farce with Sexton two seasons ago -- will hardly help his ongoing psychological battle with rival O'Gara, which clearly still remains a live issue.
"It's something that's different to what we experience with our provinces," he says of the competition. "Maybe it's affected me a little bit in the past, but you learn as you go and it's something I think we've both got used to.
"That's not to say we both don't want to play 80 minutes of every game. But we can mix and match at different parts of the game and that's something that Declan has chosen to do in the past.
"You have to accept it if it happens. Obviously neither of us wants it to happen, but it's just the way it is."
Sexton just has to believe that his best will be good enough.