The rawness of a World Cup quarter-final in which Ireland failed to produce their best effort will live long with Johnny Sexton but the veteran fly-half insists there will be no blame game when the IRFU produces its review of a faltering 2019 campaign for Joe Schmidt’s team.
Ireland’s miserable exit at the hands of New Zealand in a 46-14 Tokyo hammering 19 days ago brought a shambolic end to Schmidt’s otherwise transformational tenure as head coach and left senior players such as vice-captain Sexton, 34, with a third straight World Cup quarter-final exit.
The inquest has already begun as the IRFU seeks to learn further lessons with which to provide incoming head coach Andy Farrell and his new-look coaching ticket the platform to finally break Ireland’s glass ceiling at the tournament and reach the last four for the first time at the next World Cup in France in 2023.
Sexton promised that review would require total honesty from the squad and management involved during a faltering campaign and the inconsistent form that blighted Schmidt’s final 11 months in the job since defeating the All Blacks in Dublin last November.
“That’s happening at the moment. It will happen behind closed doors with the IRFU and they will employ a company to come in and ask us questions,” Leinster captain Sexton said yesterday at the launch of the 2019/20 Heineken Champions Cup season.
“I am sure it’ll happen with the new coaching staff – Andy, Simon (Easterby) and (incoming attack coach) Mike Catt. No-one will be as honest as we will be with each other. But it’s important that we stick together. We were in it together and that is the most important thing.
“We were a team and we will take responsibility as a team with the coaches and the senior players. The IRFU, the leadership group and the coaches will do what they can with the information… but what won’t happen is, no-one will be thrown under the bus.
“There’s no one person at fault for this. There was no one person you can point the finger at. We’ll take responsibility together as senior players. If people are pointing the finger at us, I’ll take responsibility. It’s not going to change what happened or how I feel about myself. I know myself what I did, what I could have done better, what I could have done more of. Those answers are for me to know. All you can do is look at yourself, try and improve and come back.”
Sexton admitted Ireland had not improved enough from their stellar showing in 2018 when in addition to beating New Zealand at home for the first time the side also won a Test series in Australia and landed a Six Nations Grand Slam. That success only served to heighten the disappointment of 2019, which he branded “a failure”.
“The year we’ve had, if you go back before Joe’s time, it’s probably a normal year. I think it would be a normal year for Ireland. We’ve set the standards differently and it’s been a failure for the standards we’ve set.
“I was going on during the Six Nations when we had a bad period of performance, that we still had won 23 of 26 internationals which is pretty phenomenal. We just couldn’t produce our best when it mattered and that’s going to hurt us for a long time.
“It’ll be raw for four years. It’ll be raw for lads that go to the next World Cup for the next four years. For the lads that don’t, for the rest of their careers, for the rest of their lives really.
“It meant that much to us but we have to go and look at everything we did. Was it good enough? Only you know yourself if you prepared as well as you could. I can only speak for myself but I felt I was building really well, played well and prepared really well for the game.
“Things just didn’t go the way you would like. It’s small margins. You go from one week to another. I kicked a ball against Samoa that goes in by that much to the five-metre channel and against New Zealand, I do the exact same kick, exactly as I would have practised as I did the day before the game and it gets slapped back in.
“They are the things. We carved them open on a set-play and we run the wrong running line and run into each other. We don’t prepare to do that or we don’t plan it.”
Sexton said in the wake of the New Zealand defeat the reins were swiftly handed over from Schmidt to his defence coach and successor Farrell.
“We were in Japan for a couple of days post it. (Joe) was still around and we had a small chat, not so much about that (defeat). A little bit about the six years and for me it was nine years.
“It’s strange already, he was the guy you had to go to even for, ‘right, what games am I playing?’ ‘What holidays am I taking?’ He handed over to Faz at the end of the World Cup, Faz explained how it was going to work.
“It’s different already. It was different that day when Joe says, ‘right Faz is going to take you…’
“It’s over, you know what I mean? There’s not many positives to take from it, but Faz has a chance now to really stamp his style and authority on us.
“It’s exciting now, another chance to come back.”
Sexton is hoping to stay in touch with Schmidt, who is taking a sabbatical from the game at least until the summer, though he admitted it “would be scary if he took over France or somewhere with their players and resources”.
“We became close over the years – I know lads slag us about it – but that’s what happens with a 10 and a coach. But you’re always evolving and I’m looking forward to meeting Mike Catt hopefully, if they pick me, to work with him.”