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How Johnny Sexton proved he's learning on the job as Ireland captain

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Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton

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Too late: Johnny McNicholl can’t stop Ireland’s Andrew Conway scoring a try

Too late: Johnny McNicholl can’t stop Ireland’s Andrew Conway scoring a try

�INPHO/Gary Carr

Jacob Stockdale is pursued by George North

Jacob Stockdale is pursued by George North

�INPHO/Bryan Keane

Johnny Sexton

"Can I just say one thing?" came the request from Johnny Sexton over the referee's microphone.

The No.10 felt Taulupe Faletau had sealed off the ruck, but Romain Poite disagreed. Sexton made his point without changing the Frenchman's mind but Ireland rolled on to a 24-14 win that kickstarted their 2020 Six Nations.

Under normal circumstances, it was a mere aside - yes, Ireland gave away 10 penalties over the course of the game but discipline was not to be a post-match talking point - a moment that had little bearing on the final result, but gave the impression of significance nonetheless.

Two days prior in Abbotstown, it had been Sexton fielding the questions, doing so now with the greater frequency his new role as Ireland captain decrees.

Sat in front of a collection of various media types, the 20 or so minutes were a fair reflection of what we've witnessed of the man in these situations over the course of his professional career - interesting, capable of humour and occasionally combative.

His most illuminating train of thought came as he spoke of his efforts to settle into the role of national skipper and admitted there are occasions he can look back upon and see how his demeanour or body language can colour the picture of his relationship with referees and how he has spoken with the likes of Paul O'Connell about how to project a more calming, less spiky presence.

The 2018 World Player of the Year, captain of what will go down as one of Ireland's greatest ever provincial sides and the creative heartbeat of the national team for the majority of the past decade, here he was reflecting upon how even at 34-years-old he is still learning on the job as a rookie Test skipper.

While there were still signs that Poite's patience was at times wearing thin, there were signs too that Sexton's captaincy could yet prove to be a successful denouement to his storied career.

He laughed afterwards when asked if this win was his most enjoyable in a green jersey for some time, the clear implication being that there hasn't been much recent competition.

On Saturday - against a side who played a World Cup semi-final less than four months ago and came in as Grand Slam champions - Sexton looked more like his 2018 vintage than at any point in 2019, and not coincidentally so too did Ireland.

Rather than try and recapture what was such a success two years ago, however, Sexton is more focussed on what Ireland will be moving forward.

"We're trying to look forward, to be honest,' said Sexton.

"We're trying to draw a line under last year and 2018 and we're trying to develop something new and trying to do things slightly differently.

"In saying that, I think some of the messages that have come out of our camp haven't been taken the way they should be.

"We've taken a lot of what Joe's (Schmidt) done over the last few years and we've built on it and we've added bits to it and to suggest that we've sort of thrown away everything is wrong.

"So we've got a good balance. We've really improved in some areas and we've changed the way we do things, which you have to do. You have to develop and adapt but some of the messages that have gone out haven't been entirely accurate really."

In contrast, Ireland themselves were much more accurate here than a week ago when beating Scotland. While they let some chances slip through their fingers early on - a scrum penalty awarded against a none-too-convinced Tadhg Furlong and a lineout uncharacteristically left behind by James Ryan - but from the off the physical and emotional pitch seemed right. After last week and an atmosphere that Sexton dubbed "flat", the Aviva responded in kind, team and crowd in sync once again.

There were still moments when momentum could well have swung away from them. When Wales did play the type of rugby we came to expect from Wayne Pivac's Scarlets sides, they produced a brilliant try through Tomos Williams that ensured Ireland's superiority would be represented only by a five-point lead at the turn.

After a clever lineout score to open the second half finished by Josh van der Flier, the visitors spent a period camped on the Irish line, a spell that saw Ireland ship a number of penalties and eventually Hadleigh Parkes break through the defensive resistance and stretch the ball over the line.

After a lengthy TMO stoppage, it was decided the native Kiwi had just let slip of the ball as he grounded. Millimetres in it, the difference to the game vast. Instead of a 19-14 game with Wales benefiting from momentum, it was 19-7 and Ireland went on to secure the bonus point through Andrew Conway.

After the World Cup disaster and less than convincing start to this Championship, Ireland are heading to Twickenham in two weeks with a Triple Crown to be won. Should they return home with that particular piece of silverware on February 23, with only Italy at home in between, they'd surely be playing France for a second Grand Slam in three years in round five.

That, though, remains some way off. While Ireland won at Twickenham in 2018, their last two games against Eddie Jones' men have been humbling, shipping 89 points in a pair of contests last year that have left them battered and bruised.

"The last two times we've played England they've given us a spanking," Sexton said. "So we need to up our game from those levels of performances.

"It's a tough place to go, Twickenham - we haven't had too many victories over the years and it'll be no different now coming into this game."

Belfast Telegraph