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Sexton: Ireland's World Cup failure driving me to play on for as long as I can


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Captain material: (from left) Six Nations captains Charles Ollivon (France), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Owen Farrell (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Luca Bigi (Italy) and Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) at the launch of the tournament in London

Captain material: (from left) Six Nations captains Charles Ollivon (France), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Owen Farrell (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Luca Bigi (Italy) and Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) at the launch of the tournament in London

Captain material: (from left) Six Nations captains Charles Ollivon (France), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Owen Farrell (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Luca Bigi (Italy) and Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) at the launch of the tournament in London

London's Tobacco Dock is one of those old buildings made new with glass fittings and big windows.

Yesterday, it was the new venue for a long-established event; the Guinness Six Nations launch, and the unfamiliar surrounds were somehow fitting considering the host of fresh faces dancing the dance for the first time.

For seven seasons, the clean-cut, boyish face of Joe Schmidt looked down from the top table alongside Paul O'Connell and Rory Best.

Yesterday, it was the bearded Andy Farrell who peered out from above his IRFU tie, and alongside him was the familiar figure of Johnny Sexton as they moved from glass cage to glass cage to face different versions of the same questions from the various media platforms.

Eventually, they arrived in the writers' room for their last formal engagement before they departed for their Algarve training camp.

Before departure, there was a little bit of old ground to cover.

While this is a new beginning for the Ireland team, the context of their terrible World Cup performance and general 2019 decline hangs over them ahead of their new beginning.

Schmidt touched on it in his book, Best has had his say and the IRFU review outlined the official line on what went wrong in Japan.

There will be no redemption this spring, says Sexton.

"It's hard because the real amends will be made in four years' time," he said of the latest quarter-final exit.

"Whether you're there or not is another thing. It could have been a lot of our last World Cup, but you get to the stage where you know a sporting career has ups and downs.

"You never just have all successes, you never have all successes, you just learn that these bumps come, and sometimes they come along when you least expect them or when you are in your best form or your best shape, and suddenly things just don't go to plan. And it's just knowing that, knowing it's part of the journey and it's sort of easier to accept then and move on.

"But it's not easy, there's plenty of nights I lay awake going, 'What just happened? What went wrong? How did it go wrong?'

"And you mull over these things for ages, and I've been lucky that I had some good chats with Faz (Farrell), with Stuart (Lancaster) when I got back to Leinster and he had some good experience from being with England in 2015, and he kinda put everything into context for us.

"So it's been a good learning curve, even though you don't want it to be."

The question of Sexton being around in 2023 is one of the big issues surrounding his captaincy.

No one doubts his playing or leadership ability, and he remains the class out-half in the squad, but he will be 38 when France rolls around.

He is the captain for this window and this window alone, but if he does a good job it's unlikely that Farrell will seek to change.

"I've talked about how I want to play as long as I can because I love what I do," he said.

"I wouldn't change it for anything, maybe for being a golfer, but other than that I love being in the sport, I love everything that goes with it and I want to play for as long as possible. But you can be 24, sat here and wanting to play until you're 35 or 36 but you could be finished tomorrow, you don't know, so there's no point in me continuing to talk about it, I've just got to enjoy this Six Nations.

"I'm here next year once injury doesn't stop me and I'll just continue to build season on season and try to produce the goods, keep the mind good and body good, and I don't see why not. But there are other people who have a lot to do with it as well.

"But the day that guys in the game that I respect say, 'Look, I think you've had enough', I'll listen and I'll go. I'll go kicking and screaming but I'll go. A lot has to happen."

Leinster captain last season, Sexton led Ireland for the first time against Russia at the World Cup.

There have been ups and downs, but the skipper says he has worked hard to improve his leadership.

"That's probably up to other people to answer that. I've tried to get better," he said. "Leadership is the same as any other part of my game, I've had to get better over the years.

"I've had to change, I've had to adapt to being an older guy in the squad. I've still got that drive in me but how I portray that to other people is more important than it was.

"I've had to get better and change and I hope I've done that, I've learned some good lessons with Leinster over three seasons when I started having captaincy responsibilities with Isa (Nacewa) and then after Isa… I learned a lot off the captains I played under and I'll try to take bits off them.

"But it's important I'm myself. You've got to try to be true to yourself. That's what I'll try to do but I will try to get better. I'll try to do that with every part of my game until I retire."

The captaincy is new, but Sexton has been a senior figure in the Ireland set-up for almost a decade and will want to put his own stamp on the role. One of Best's critiques of the 2019 decline was that the players ceded ground to the coaches and looked to Schmidt for guidance too frequently.

He feels his friend and predecessor's words were misconstrued, but accepts that the players must take more ownership in driving the team during this Six Nations.

"I spoke to Rory about that and I think an element of that was him trying to put it on himself, him trying to say that he maybe got a little bit wrong," he said.

"We spoke about that, we wanted to be more... not that it wasn't player-driven in the past, but that we wanted it to be even more player-driven.

"That's being driven by Faz, he wants us to do it together, for the team to be accountable to each other and very much we do something similar in Leinster where the leadership group have a strong voice with the coaches.

"We had a strong voice before but I think those comments probably got blown out of proportion with the IRFU review at the same time and it all blew up.

"What I think he was trying to do there was say the leadership group needed to be better and he needed to do more. I know it got pointed at Joe but that wasn't the intention of Rory, I think."

Best's time is over, Sexton is the figurehead of a new squad in a new tournament. There may be no World Cup redemption on offer, but that hasn't lessened his desire to win in a green shirt.

Belfast Telegraph