By Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh
Johnny Sexton says Ireland had a definite advantage over England and the rest of their Six Nations opponents this year.
Joe Schmidt's men won the grand slam for the first time since 2009 – and only the third time in the championship's history.
England were regarded as favourites by most before the tournament kicked off last month, having won the last two on the bounce, but they finished fifth in the end after three straight defeats.
The final loss at home, to Ireland last Saturday, was their first defeat in Twickenham under Eddie Jones, and many former players and pundits said the team looked tired.
Sexton said he could not speak to how the England players felt in camp, but admits the Ireland players – and particularly their Lions contingent – had been better prepared than their English counterparts.
Players like Maro Itoje have played a lot more minutes of rugby this season than the likes of Sexton and Tadhg Furlong, who were also key players in New Zealand last summer, with the IRFU's player welfare structures ensuring the frontline Irish players play fewer minutes than their Premiership or Top 14 counterparts.
Sexton, one of the stars of the tournament, said the management of players was no 'guarantee of performance', but is certain it helped his victorious team.
“I think it is an advantage that we’ve played half as many minutes as the guys we’re playing against,” he said. “It’s not so much the management – they looked after us really well in terms of training-load throughout the campaign – it’s the IRFU that deserve credit for the central contracting which allows us to play in big games throughout the season.
“When we finished the Lions tour we had roughly three weeks off, we had a six-week pre-season with a mini-break - three-week block, week off, three-week block - and then back into games.
“The English boys, I think, had three weeks holidays and were straight in playing pre-season games; not great physical preparation to turn around from a Lions tour.”
Sexton tasted life outside the Irish system when he spent two seasons with Racing 92 in the Top 14, giving him an extra insight into how much the IRFU do to take care of their players.
“I have been on the other side of the fence before when I moved to France after the last Lions tour in 2013,” he said, as the 'International Rugby Players' – formerly known as the International Rugby Players Association – announced the switch of their HQ from Auckland to Dublin.
“I had three weeks off, I think, and I played a pre-season friendly maybe two weeks later. It’s not ideal preparation and it’s a key reason why some of their players have been injured. It’s not the only reason, but it would play a big part in that and I think our freshness told in this campaign compared to other countries.”
Thanks to the player welfare programme, Sexton says he has no issues with joining the Ireland squad to tour Australia this June.
Gordon D'Arcy, the former Ireland and Lions centre, claimed Sexton and Conor Murray could do with a summer off, but the Leinster outhalf is not interested.
“We’re well looked after so the amount of minutes they want you to play in a season is calculated,” he said. “Our whole game minutes are planned so we can go to Australia, so we can play for Ireland in the summer tours and we’re still fit and ready to do it. I would like to go, yeah.”
Sexton also hopes to be fit for the visit of Saracens in next month's Champions Cup quarter final, despite a glute injury that affected his kicking in the Six Nations.
“I should be good to go, yeah. There's a bit of work to do this week to get right and hopefully I’ll be alright next week,” he said.