Sexton sets the tone as Ireland rediscover their true voice

If last week was flat then this was full on.

Sexton sets the tone as Ireland rediscover their true voice

If last week was flat then this was full on.

Jonathan Sexton had detected the lack of electricity in the Aviva Stadium long before Ireland got their Six Nations campaign underway against the Scots seven days ago. He wasn't about to wait for Storm Ciara to get the place howling second time around.

There was barely a minute played when Ireland made their first venture into the Welsh 22. It ended with Jacob Stockdale kicking ahead and forcing Dan Biggar over the dead-ball line for an Irish 5m scrum. Game on.

The roar that Sexton directed at the crowd as Biggar was swamped was a statement in itself. Ireland were soft in too many collisions in week one. They managed just the one try and struggled to get their scrum and lineout humming. They gave the crowd next to nothing.

There were stutters again this time. Andy Farrell spoke about a performance that was again “clunky” at times but four tries and the bonus point that comes with it were not the only rewards for this encouraging afternoon in D4.

This is a shot in the arm for team and fans alike. The slow but steady drain on confidence levels instigated by such a poor 2019 wasn't addressed despite the 19-12 win against Gregor Townsend's men but this has the potential to wash away so much doubt and self-reflection.

It was the best Ireland have shown in a long, long time.

“Yeah, it wouldn’t be hard after last year,” said Sexton with a touch of black humour. “It was brilliant. It had a bit of everything. It had some of the stuff that we didn’t get to show against Scotland, when you get the ball in our back threes hands, something can happen. They showed that. They stuck to the tactics.

“In terms of when we got on the edge, the temptation is to run but they got us field position at times brilliantly. Some of our shape stuff was great, stuff we have been working on. And we won! That is the most important thing for us. We are building momentum now but obviously our biggest challenge is up ahead, in a couple of weeks time.”

England, as Sexton reminded everyone, have given Ireland a right good “spanking” on the last two occasions the sides have crossed paths but this win against the reigning Grand Slam champions and World Cup semi-finalists is of immeasurable value.

Put aside the talk of tactics and strategy for a bit and look at some of the performances across the park from an Irish team that, had they lost, would have heard all sorts of carping about the failure to inject more new blood into the system after Japan.

Ireland's Jacob Stockdale with CJ Stander and his daughter Everli after the game. (©INPHO/Bryan Keane)
Ireland's Jacob Stockdale with CJ Stander and his daughter Everli after the game. (©INPHO/Bryan Keane)

CJ Stander won man of the match for a second week in a row, Conor Murray was superb at scrum-half despite all the focus on him in recent weeks, Sexton himself was excellent and Andrew Conway was little short of outstanding on the wing.

Those are just some of the standouts. Wales will be disappointed with themselves, they said as much afterwards, but it was interesting to hear their captain Alun Wyn Jones say that this wasn't much different an Irish team from the ones he had faced under Schmidt.

This was certainly comparable to Ireland circa 2018 when a Grand Slam was claimed and the All Blacks beaten in Dublin and Sexton was eager to put straight a narrative which he believes has been unfair to his old boss in recent weeks.

“We’re trying to look forward, to be honest,” he said when asked if this felt like a return to the good old times. “We’re trying to draw a line under last year, and 2018 and we’re trying to develop something new and trying to do things slightly differently.

“In saying that, some of the messages that have come out of our camp haven’t been taken the way they should be. We’ve taken a lot of what Joe’s done over the last few years and we’ve built on it and added bits to it. To suggest that we’ve just sort of thrown away everything is just wrong.

“So we’ve got a good balance. We’ve really improved in some areas and we’ve changed the way we do things, which you have to do. You have to develop and adapt but some of the messages that have gone out haven’t been entirely accurate really.”

His new boss could certainly point to plenty here that was done better than against the Scots. Farrell has challenged his side to be physical and abrasive. He saw it in snatches last week but this was an 80-minute effort in that regard.

That was pleasing.

Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell at the post-match press conference. (©INPHO/Bryan Keane)
Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell at the post-match press conference. (©INPHO/Bryan Keane)

So was Sexton's contribution. Not everyone was convinced that the Leinster veteran was the right fit for the vacant role of captain but he has returned the faith shown by the Englishman in spades with his efforts on the pitch and his leadership off it.

It was Sexton who chaired the player's meeting on Friday night which appears to have, if not set the tone for this performance, then played a significantly sized role in priming the side for a performance that they knew was still in them.

“He’s in control, isn’t he?” said Farrell. “That’s what he’s done all his life and that’s what he does best. With the added responsibilities of captaincy, I think he’s added to his game, actually ... That’s his meeting, for him to do as he sees fit…

“I mean, he’ll tell you himself whether he’s thriving or not but, having seen his last two performances, with last week being the one that he’s not played for eight weeks [beforehand], he’s been nothing short of sensational really.”

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