New captain Sexton hoping team answers any lingering questions

The question didn’t come from out of left field so much as the Far East. Where, asked the Japanese journalist, would you rank Ireland on a scale from one to 100 right now?

New captain Sexton hoping team answers any lingering questions

The question didn’t come from out of left field so much as the Far East. Where, asked the Japanese journalist, would you rank Ireland on a scale from one to 100 right now?

Jonathan Sexton, so composed and authoritative in what was his first press conference as Ireland skipper, needed a moment to gather himself and find the right response.

“Can I answer that on Saturday?” he laughed.

“Saturday at 7 o’clock I’ll answer it. Today? 100.”

That about sums it up. This Ireland team is in no-man’s land right now. It could be that they storm the Scottish lines tomorrow and rattle through this Six Nations campaign in a triumphant return to form. Or it could be that they end up under a barrage of criticism again.

Who knows?

All the right noises are being sounded. The new digs at the National Sports Campus have enough testimonials gathered to fill half a dozen promotional booklets. Andy Farrell’s stewardship has been hailed from all quarters, so too Mike Catt’s attacking ideas and personality.

There is the promise of something different in the air. Farrell has allowed a more democratic culture to emerge with the aid of a new player leadership group, some new faces are about to be blooded, and there have been hints of a new attacking focus.

We’ll see. Talk is cheap and Sexton understands the currency’s weakness better than anyone.

“Yeah, it has gone well so far but again, like I said previously, it doesn’t count for anything until Saturday and then you have to put it all together,” he said.

There are a few differences but obviously I can’t go into them because I can’t tell Scotland our game plan.

“But I hope that you get to see it on Saturday. Sometimes you can prepare to play a brilliant expansive game and if you don’t get the right setpiece and get first-phase ball or get put under pressure it can disintegrate.

“So we have just got to be ready for all eventualities and we will try our best to put out the new style of game we have been working on. It could take a while, it might not appear in this campaign or this game or it could all come to fruition on Saturday.

“No one knows. Let’s see how the game goes.”

This isn’t just big for Ireland, it’s big for Sexton too. He had to wait until last year’s World Cup to captain his country but that was a one-off. This is bigger and he felt his emotions stir just talking about tomorrow, when he will lead a team out in front of his family in his home town.

That he is fit to fulfil his role is a result in itself. Out of action since damaging knee ligaments away to Northampton in December, he has had to endure a lengthy rehab programme and returns cold to competitive rugby against the Scots.

He insists he’s ready to go, even if you could find words to worm away at your confidence in phrases such as “no setbacks to talk about” and “I’ve done pretty much everything since” the team started its warm-weather camp in Portugal last week.

He’s been here before, fronting up on the back of an extended absence.

“It’s obviously more difficult and you’d be lying if you suggested it’s ideal, but I can draw on past experiences of coming in having not played, even when you talk about just before the World Cup, having not played for a while. The way we’ve trained over the 10 days will hopefully help me.

“I’ve built into the team stuff and probably felt sharper [yesterday], having made a few mistakes on Tuesday and having felt a bit rusty at the start of the week.

Hopefully I’ll be able to go out and express myself on Saturday and try and help the team win. That’s ultimately what we need to do.

His suitability as skipper may have been questioned at times due to his on-field edge, but Sexton off the field has always been a balanced and capable orator and he ticked all the right boxes when the temperature was taken on all the hot topics yesterday.

Conor Murray? Always self-driven. Been sharp in training. John Cooney? Ready to plug in off the bench. Brian O’Driscoll’s suggestion that Ireland lack a ‘bit of dog’ up front? A potentially prickly issue that was clipped of any danger with ease.

“I saw the headline and the gist of it,” he said with ne’er a hint of drama.

“Look, I can understand what he is saying but there is a few guys in there who have a bit of grunt about him. Hopefully they can show that on Saturday.”

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