Ireland fly half Johnny Sexton visited Caherline National School in Limerick this week to deliver a coaching masterclass to students as part of the MACE, “Going the Extra Smile” campaign.
As expected, the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan, which begins on Friday 20th September 2019, was very much a topic of interest for those present, with the Dubliner admitting to having regrets about previous editions of the tournament:
“For everyone that’s going it’s unfinished business. We feel we maybe let it slip at the last World Cup and there’s been some regrets from some of the other ones I was at too. In 2011 we had that quarter-final against Wales, knowing that if we won that – and we’d beaten Wales a few times – that we could have had France in the semi-final. So, there’s always those regrets. That’s why we’ll be working extremely hard over the summer, to make sure we try and close those small margins in our favour and make sure we come away having done something special.”
Sexton said the IRFU centrally-contracted system which operates for Ireland international players plying their trade in the country is of advantage to the national team when it comes to major tournaments:
“They’re (World Cups) probably a lot tougher for other countries because they don’t get as well looked after as we do. In countries like England and France, the clubs have all the power, the national team doesn’t have the pull that the IRFU does, and that’s one of the big advantages we have in Ireland. I’ve only played 21 or 22 games so far this year so, compared to players in some other countries I still feel fresh and I’ll probably still do a little training on my holidays. We really get looked after extremely well in Ireland.”
The former St. Mary’s College player reflected on what he described as a “double blow” he suffered at the last Rugby World Cup when he came off injured in the game against France and subsequently missed the quarter-final against Argentina:
“It was a double blow having missed most of the French game. Having to come off early in that (French) game was probably tougher because when you’re in the game, actually in the contest, the last thing you want to do is come off so that was probably harder. When you come off injured (25th minute) and we’re playing seven days later it’s always going to be very tough to turn it around, so I kind of knew when I came off against France that I was going to miss the Argentina game. Sitting and watching that then was very, very tough. You want to be out there with the guys, contributing with them and being in the dressing room afterwards was probably the lowest point, watching the lads suffering and not being part of it as well.”
This year’s Rugby World Cup will be Head Coach Joe Schmidt’s final tournament in charge of the national side and Sexton is adamant that no matter what happens in Japan, Schmidt’s record with Ireland will stand the test of time:
“Joe’s legacy will live on no matter what. He has had the best record by a mile of any Irish coach. No matter what happens between now and the end of his tenure, no one’s come close. What he has taught us will continue to live on through the players and the coaches that have worked with him. When Andy Farrell takes over he’s not just going to discard everything Joe did, a lot of what we’ve done over the last few years will continue, that’s Joe’s legacy.”
The 83-times Ireland capped player doesn’t agree with suggestions that Ireland peaked too early ahead of the Rugby World Cup, but concedes:
“If that’s peoples’ opinion that’s their opinion and there’s nothing you can do about it but I don’t think we’ve peaked. I didn’t think we’d peaked when we won the Grand Slam and I didn’t think we’d peaked when we beat the All Blacks either. It’s amazing how peoples’ opinions can change in the space of a couple of months. We beat the All Blacks and all the (public) talk was ‘nothing’s going to stop us winning the World Cup’ and then, three or four games later, we’re the worst team ever and people think we peaked.”
With a long and busy rugby season ahead, Sexton says he is looking forward to Japan as he expects a great atmosphere at Ireland games:
“World Cups are pretty special because you feel like the whole country gets behind you. Sometimes you kind of lose sight of it because you’re so wrapped up in a bubble away from the country and what’s happening at home. Even though we’re in Japan for this one I’d say we’ll still get a crazy amount of Irish people over there. That’s always the way with Ireland and makes it very special for us.”
He doesn’t think, however, that Leinster’s recent win over Glasgow in the Guinness Pro14 Final will have any bearing on Ireland’s Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland:
“I don’t think so. That’s a one-off game. Glasgow had come to Leinster a few weeks before that game and beaten us at home. The World Cup game against Scotland will be very different personnel-wise. We’ll have a mixture of players from all the provinces in the Irish team and we’re going to have to gel. Scotland only have (players from) Glasgow and Edinburgh but they’ve also got guys like Greg Laidlaw and Seán Maitland playing in the best clubs in Europe that they’ll be calling on as well. It’s going to be an extremely tough game and we’re going to have to in top form for the start of the World Cup.”
Before Ireland depart for the Rugby World Cup they will have warm-up games against Italy (Saturday, 10th August, 2pm) and Wales (Saturday, 7th September, 2pm) at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, while in between they travel to Twickenham to face England on Saturday 24th August (3pm kick-off) and to Cardiff the following weekend (Saturday, 31st August, 2.30pm) to play Wales.
Tickets for Ireland’s pre-Rugby World Cup games are available on Ticketmaster.