It was only last week that Andrew Conway was asked whether, in light of the changes in the Ireland coaching ranks and the different lessons for players to learn, you could teach old dogs new tricks.
“If he’s willing to learn and think he is. Yeah, I think so,” was Conway’s response then and yesterday his captain, Johnny Sexton, proved he was such an old dog still in possession of an enquiring mind.
At 34, the veteran fly-half who will on Saturday win his 90th Ireland cap, still feels he has plenty to learn, particularly when it comes to Test captaincy.
There would appear little left for Sexton, who has been Leinster skipper for the past two seasons, to take on board given his achievements and experience, but he had assumed the captaincy carrying a reputation as a prickly customer in his interactions with referees and such matters could get his tenure off to a rocky start.
So on being appointed on the eve of the current Guinness Six Nations by new head coach Andy Farrell to succeed Rory Best, the 2018 World Player of the Year went seeking counsel.
“I didn’t get any lessons, I just got some advice,” Sexton said yesterday before revealing that he sought out his former Ireland skipper Paul O’Connell, who pertinent, to this week, referred to a flashpoint with this Saturday’s Ireland-Wales official Romain Poite.
“Paulie spoke to me about one time he was playing against the Ospreys and Romain Poite was ref and he took his gumshield out and he had no teeth in and he spits through his teeth,” Sexton recounted with a grin.
Paulie looks angry at the best of times, even when he’s happy and he was just standing over Romain Poite.
“What he was saying was probably perfectly acceptable but the way it looked or the way Romain felt was maybe not quite right.
“Everyone makes mistakes in their game or parts of their leadership and I’ve made plenty over the years but I’d like to think I’ve learned some good lessons.”
One such lesson came in the white heat of a Munster-Leinster interpro Limerick during Christmas 2018.
“One of the biggest games I learned last year was in the game in Thomond Park where Frank (Murphy, the referee) — I played with Frank and I’m friends with Frank — and he kept calling me over.
“And every time he called me over, the crowd would go absolutely crazy.
And then a couple of times I did speak to him, I had my hands out or I was speaking over him and I looked aggressive.
“What I was saying was perfectly reasonable and acceptable for a captain to say but the way it was portrayed or the way things were taken was totally different so it’s about learning those lessons, speaking to a few ex-captains and talking about that lesson and I got some good advice around that and hopefully I’ve been better since so, yeah, a good lesson learned.
“Some of the best captains I ever watched growing up, they got the balance right but seemed to put the pressure on the refs quite well and (Wales captain) Alun Wyn Jones is a great example, he has that balance right, where he has a good relationship with them (the match officials) but is able to apply pressure at times and sometimes get them to check things. So it is a bit of a skill and he’s obviously done it for a lot longer.”
Having led his country once before, against Russia in Kobe, Japan, last October, Sexton’s first game in the permanent role, on a campaign-by-campaign basis, came in last Saturday’s championship opener against Scotland, when he established a good if muted rapport with Mathieu Raynal.
“I enjoyed it, the build-up was different. I suppose the one thing for all of us is the build-up is so different. We have been so set in the build-up to international rugby over the last number of years with Joe (Schmidt) and everything has changed and we are trying to do different things like we used to meet up four hours before the game and now we meet up two hours before.
So everything was new for me, new with the captaincy and I found it busier at times but I enjoyed it.
“It’s a huge honour and not one I take lightly. I thought I was okay. There were a few things I would have liked to have done differently in or around some of the decisions that went against us, I could have done a little bit better.
“There were a few things we felt that maybe we could have checked but look we had a good relationship which I suppose was the good part of it. How I can get him to maybe look at it is maybe an area I need to improve.
“But I had a good relationship throughout, he listened to me and I listened to him and we worked together but, yeah, there were a few decisions there.
“I think Scotland said the same thing after the game, they felt hard done by. It always works itself out in the end.”