By Simon Lewis
Johnny Sexton savoured Ireland’s third Six Nations title in five seasons but admitted the biggest challenge of the season was still ahead of his team.
Ireland claimed their 14th championship tonight as France’s victory over England in Paris handed Joe Schmidt’s side the championship following their 28-8 win over Scotland in Dublin.
A Grand Slam is still on the cards if the Irish can claim victory over England at Twickenham next Saturday but fly-half Sexton was eager to pay tribute to Ireland’s ability to get across the line having suffered so many injuries in midfield and across the back row.
“I think at the start of the season if you’d said “You’re going to win a championship without Josh (van der Flier), Sean (O’Brien), Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock, Robbie Henshaw, and then to lose Chris Farrell as well, and there are others on that list as well,” Sexton said.
“It’s great building forward into World Cups and before that as well, the championship next year, because we’ve built a bit of depth. That’s been done over the past couple of years and it’s great that it’s so seamless at times.
“But we know that the biggest challenge is ahead, still.”
Despite a week of avoiding any talk of a Grand Slam in the Ireland camp ahead of the Scotland game, Sexton admitted a first clean sweep for his country since Declan Kidney’s side achieved the feat in 2009 was very much a primary objective for him having only been a squad member nine years ago.
“Yeah, look you’d be lying if you said otherwise. As Declan Kidney said, I was just as much a part of it as everyone else back in 2009 when I was in the bibs. I definitely didn’t feel that way.
“But I think, I remember some of the talks that were made around those times, the O’Connells, the O’Driscolls, the O’Garas, who were trying to achieve this for 10 years. You could tell by their speeches and by their actions that season how much it meant to them and they had to drag along guys like Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, these young guys coming through.
“It’s very similar to that now, I know Rory (Best, the captain) is desperate for a Grand Slam because he thinks he’ll be a bigger part of it than he played back then.
“For us it’s about trying to drag those young guys along, they probably think they are going to get a lot of opportunities but as I know it doesn’t work out like that. I remember playing Scotland in Croke Park for a Triple Crown (in 2010) and almost taking it for granted because I thought ‘a Triple Crown, I’ll have plenty of more opportunities for this’ and I still haven’t won a Triple Crown. You’ve got to take these opportunities with both hands when they come.”