Fine margins. Two words that have been almost worn out during this year’s Six Nations, most often employed when discussing Ireland’s defeats to Wales and Scotland.
But when Johnny Sexton mentioned them yesterday in the Ireland team hotel, they were used in relation to England.
Yes, Eddie Jones’ men are on a run of 18 straight wins, compared to Ireland who appear unable to get beyond two straight victories, but Sexton believes it could so easily be England who were coming to Dublin with two wins and two defeats in this year’s championship.
The statistics may point to an unstoppable juggernaut, a masterful team in peak form, but the Ireland out-half is not so convinced. If Ireland have lost because they have fallen on the wrong side of those margins, England, he claims, are champions because they have fallen on the right side of them.
“I said we were going to have to be at our best against Wales because Wales had England pretty much beaten, but they lost the game on one or two things,” Sexton said.
“When you look at that Wales-England game or look at the France-England game; France and Wales should have beaten England and they didn’t because they didn’t take their chances.
“We didn’t produce our best against Wales, we just lacked that clinical edge. It is amazing the difference if we get that pushover try – we were going to score that try whether Robbie [Henshaw] does what he does or doesn’t.
“If we do that and I hold the conversion, it could be a very different story. We could be going for a championship and, all of a sudden, we’re really good.
“It has been a harsh week in the video reviews and stuff like that. I know you guys will shake your heads, but it does come down to small moments in games.
“That’s just what’s been missing really.”
England will argue you make your own luck, and their late victories over France and Wales were both achieved with wonderful, open attacking play – something Ireland have been lacking in this championship.
The run of 18 victories ‘speaks for itself’, Sexton says, adding England’s consistency is something Ireland must dare to match.
“You’ve got to say that they are on a pedestal with New Zealand, especially consistency-wise,” he said.
“I think we can say we can beat these teams, but, we haven’t come near to 18 wins in a row.
“That’s what we need to aspire to be like. We can worry about that after Saturday.
“We’re playing against the second best team in the world and some would argue they could be the best – they haven’t played the All Blacks yet. We’re going to have to be at our best to win.”
Defeat at the Aviva tomorrow could see Ireland finish outside the top three places for the first time since the 2013 Six Nations, adding to last season’s disappointment and the Rugby World Cup letdown in 2015.
It’s a kind of consistency Ireland’s players would rather not be associated with, but Sexton returned once more to those fine margins when it came to explaining the unwanted trend.
“I suppose the World Cup was the end of a cycle, when you look at some of the guys who left,” he said, “Last year’s tournament and the World Cup to some extent was just riddled with injuries.
“This year is more disappointing because we’ve had a full squad to pick from. But again, go back to that Scotland game. If we hold on for a win there, then take a couple of chances against Wales, it (the margins between succeess and failure) are very small. I think we are more consistent now, we’re turning up every week, but obviously not getting those results that we crave.”
The pre-tournament hype that suggested tomorrow’s game would be a Grand Slam showdown is long gone, with Ireland only looking for bragging rights.
Spoiling England’s big day would be a consolation of sorts, but for Sexton it could be the beginning of something more meaningful.
“We’ve worked since Joe’s come in to be the team that’s fighting for the championship and trying to be consistent, now we’re in a position where we have nothing to play for except to stopping them doing something,” he said. “We don’t want to be in that situation but we are and we’ve probably got to enjoy it now and then worry about how we’re going to become the team that England and the All Blacks are after the championship.”
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