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Johnny Sexton: I'll lead Ireland back to the top


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Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton

�INPHO/Tommy Dickson

On target: Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty last weekend in Dublin against Scotland

On target: Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty last weekend in Dublin against Scotland

�INPHO/James Crombie

Johnny Sexton

For many, last weekend's game marked a departure from the norm.

For Caelan Doris and Ronan Kelleher, first caps in the international arena, for Andy Farrell a first time as Ireland's, or indeed any other side's, head coach and, somewhat lost in the shuffle, for Johnny Sexton, a first game as the squad's permanent captain.

Already skipper for Leinster at the RDS, and a frequent fill-in for Rory Best at the end of games, the 34-year-old had only led the side out once before, against Russia in the World Cup last October, and there can be little doubt that a Six Nations opening victory over the Scots has a different feel.

The national captaincy is a gig that many have said you grow into, even for a player as experienced and decorated as the former World Player of the Year.

For Sexton, whose body language and demeanour when dealing with referees has often been the subject of intense scrutiny, the new role was always going to pile one more thing on the plate of Ireland's play-maker in chief.

"It's a huge honour and not one I take lightly," he said. "I thought I was okay. There were a few things I would have liked to have done differently in or around some of the decisions that went against us. I could have done a little bit better.

"There were a few things we felt that maybe we could have checked (with the referee) but we had a good relationship which was the good part of it.

"How I can get him to maybe look at it is maybe an area I need to improve. But I had a good relationship throughout, he listened to me and I listened to him and we worked together, there were a few decisions there. I think Scotland said the same thing after the game, they felt hard done by. It always works itself out in the end."

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On target: Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty last weekend in Dublin against Scotland

On target: Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty last weekend in Dublin against Scotland

�INPHO/James Crombie

On target: Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty last weekend in Dublin against Scotland

Sexton, to his credit, doesn't shy away from the perception his dealings with the man in the middle can often look strained, although he adds that things are often not exactly how they seem on camera - using the example of an interpro derby against Munster last December when the festive fixture brought with it the usual attention of a packed house and bumper television viewership.

"One of the biggest things I learned last year was in the game in Thomond Park where Frank (Murphy) was referee.

Everyone makes mistakes in their game or parts of their leadership and I've made plenty over the years but I'd like to think I've learned some good lessons Johnny Sexton

"I played with Frank and I'm friends with Frank and he kept calling me over. Every time he called me over, the crowd would go absolutely crazy. And then a couple of times I did speak to him, I had my hands out or I was speaking over him and I looked aggressive.

"What I was saying was perfectly reasonable and acceptable for a captain to say but the way it was portrayed or the way things were taken was totally different so it's learning those lessons, speaking to a few ex-captains and talking about that lesson and I got some good advice around that and hopefully I've been better since so, yeah, a good lesson learned."

One such former skipper he did seek the advice of was Paul O'Connell. The Munster hero led the side in the early part of the Joe Schmidt years, the World Cup in 2015 ultimately marking the end of his time as captain. Himself a figure with an uncompromising intensity during games, Sexton looked to gain an insight into avoiding a repeat of the pictures painted by those exchanges with his former team-mate last Christmas.

"I don't mind saying, I spoke to Paulie and Paulie spoke to me about one time he was playing against the Ospreys and Romain Poite was ref and he took his gumshield out and he spits through his teeth.

"Paulie looks angry at the best of times, even when he's happy, and he was just standing over Romain Poite.

"What he was saying was, again, probably perfectly acceptable but the way it looked or the way Romaine felt was maybe not quite right.

"Everyone makes mistakes in their game or parts of their leadership and I've made plenty over the years but I'd like to think I've learned some good lessons. Some of the best captains I ever watched growing up, they got the balance right but seemed to put the pressure on the refs quite well too.

"(Wales captain) Alun Wyn Jones is a great example, he has that balance right, where he has a good relationship with them but is able to apply pressure at times and sometimes get them to check things. So it is a bit of a skill and he's obviously done it for a lot longer."

Sexton of course will be renewing acquaintances with Jones on Saturday with the Ospreys lock set to lead Wales in Dublin.

The Aviva Stadium clash (2.15pm kick-off) seems sure to be key for Ireland's championship. Moving forward they are likely to be either considerable favourites or considerable underdogs but here is a game that looks delicately poised. Ireland are surely aware it will take a better performance than a week ago to beat the Grand Slam champions.

"The most pleasing aspect of last week was that we won," Sexton admitted.

"I said it after the game, you come off a game like that, if we drew the game, for example, Triple Crown gone, Grand Slam gone, a lot of the things that we as a team want to achieve and have achieved in the past and that we want to emulate again, they are gone.

"So we are still alive. I know the performance wasn't perfect, we are not trying to say it was. What we are saying is we are alive and hopefully we will get better this week."

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