Johnny Sexton has rejected suggestions that Ireland have peaked a year too early. The Ireland and Leinster No10 shrugged off claims that Joe Schmidt’s team found top gear too soon, with the Rugby World Cup in Japan still over three months away.
Ireland claimed the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam before beating Australia down under and picking up a first ever home victory over New Zealand. In the middle, Leinster completed an unprecedented league and European double. But 2019 has been a lot different, with Leinster losing their European title and Ireland finishing third in the Six Nations, with defeats to England and Wales along the way.
“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,” said Sexton. “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 people’s 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.
“Look, we’ve got time together now to really work on things through the summer. We’ll have some games beforehand to try and find our form and hopefully go to the World Cup knowing that, on our day, we can beat anyone but also have that fear that, on any day, we can lose to anyone as well.
“We’ve got a mixture of both and I think that’ll bode well for us. We’ve a game against Italy in eight weeks, then away to England and then two more friendlies against Wales so it’ll be a big summer before we start the World Cup. Those first two games against Scotland and Japan are definitely the most important.”
Sexton’s season ended on a high, with Leinster beating Glasgow in the PRO14 final in Celtic Park last month, but it wasn’t enough to hide the pain from the earlier defeats.
“It was a boost because it was tough up to that point. We had a lot of high points during the season — some of Leinster’s performances in Europe, the All Blacks game, the French game in Six Nations — but also a lot of lows.
“The Wales game was like a cup final and then there was the European Cup final against Saracens. Those losses will live with you forever, so to put a small high point on the end of it, it does change your form for the summer holidays. But it really doesn’t gloss over the losses.
The Ireland squad is full of players who have won European titles and grand slams, but also players who now know the pain of losing those honours as well. Sexton believes this could be crucial ahead of a tournament in which he’s determined to bury other bad memories.
“I know there’s a cliché about ‘only learning when you lose’ but when win you do learn something, you learn how good it is, you learn everything that goes with winning, the celebrations and the memories you make,” he said.
“Of course you learn things from losing but you also miss those winning moments so I think we’re in a good place now. No matter who’s going to the World Cup they’ve all won things — whether with Ireland or European Cups with Leinster. Everyone going to Japan knows what it’s like to win and also what it’s like to lose and I think that’s actually the best of both worlds.
“The World Cup is unfinished business for everyone that’s going. 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.”
Johnny Sexton is a MACE brand ambassador, Ireland’s longest serving convenience brand.