Of all the barometers used to measure the mood in Ireland camp this last six weeks, the reliance on Jonathan Sexton’s body language must have been up there with the most wildly inaccurate. The out-half’s bark is heard far more often at Ireland games than the ‘Fields of Athenry’ and his remorseless demand for perfection in everything the team does permeates the pitches at the team’s base in Carton House.
He is Joe Schmidt in a better-fitting jersey. It was odd then that the 33-year old’s grumpiness should have been landed upon as some sort of window into the soul of the squad. That his kicking of a towel and uttering of a few expletives as he left the field in Rome was examined more forensically than fingerprints on a raided vault.
Those eager to extend the tenuous link between Sexton’s demeanour and the team’s well-being will have noted the breezy nature of his disposition yesterday as he smiled his way through media duties and cracked the odd joke at Rory Best’s expense. This, remember, just two days on from the release that was the side’s return to form against France. Definitive proof, basically, for those of us prone to lapsing into black and white narratives that all must be well with the world again.
“If you saw us train before Scotland and Italy...,” he suggested. “We trained the house down and then we had our bad day on the Saturday. And we tried to figure out why it happened. Maybe we got to the bottom of it and we figured out something for the French game.
“Look, there’s been a bounce of energy in the squad since day one, since we met up in Portugal. It’s always a great place to be, this Irish camp. We’re led by brilliant coaches and captain and there’s always a great camaraderie around the place.
“This has been no different. Despite the frustrations on the Saturdays, and some of that boiling over, it has always been a happy camp.”
If Sexton’s mood never quite fit the role of weather vane in Carton House before the French game then there is no reason why it should now. It wasn’t the case of everything being awful before it and it sure as hell isn’t a case of everything being fine and dandy now either. The first 40 minutes last Sunday was “excellent”. Sexton spoke with some relish about the execution levels despite a slippy ball and about a corner turned — but more in the sense of a slight nudge of the steering wheel rather than any dramatic U-turn.
“Honestly, there was nothing majorly broken in the first few games. Just some uncharacteristic errors from individuals and some breakdowns in a couple of things. That adds up. If everyone makes a couple of mistakes then suddenly you have 30 errors and you are in a bit of trouble.”
Ireland have, if nothing else, moved on from the negative narrative that had surrounded them since the opening day loss to England and they travel to Wales later in the week knowing that there is still the vague chance that they could retain their title. Problem is that Scotland would have to beat England at Twickenham for the first time since the Battle of Bannockburn for that to happen and even that wouldn’t matter if Ireland weren’t able to bring a halt to the Welsh juggernaut and their progression towards a Grand Slam.
Warren Gatland’s side have won 13 games on the bounce since losing to Ireland in Dublin this time last year but Schmidt’s men have ended unbeaten stretches of greater note in recent times when overcoming New Zealand and England as both were searching for a 19th win on the trot.
Sexton doesn’t doubt that Wales have momentum but he knows from chats with Welsh players in the past just how much pressure they will be under in their own country this week and he took issue with the notion that the home side will feel a sense of ‘invincibility’ on Saturday.
“I don’t know if Wales feel like they’re invincible. They’re saying that they’ve forgotten how to lose and all of that. They’ve eked out some results, we’ve played well against teams that have gone on runs before — New Zealand, England — stopping their runs. Again, we’ll give them the respect that they absolutely deserve. We’ll analyse them, we’ll talk about where we can get at them, where we think they are very strong and we’ll come up with a plan. I don’t think we’ll talk too much about the psychology of them.”