So much for stormy weather. The clouds may have been gathering around Ireland as they prepared to face Grand Slam champions Wales in Dublin, and not just those being blown in by Storm Ciara. Yet when Johnny Sexton speaks, all becomes calm.
The captain had gathered his players for a meeting on Friday night, the eve of his 90th appearance, as the criticism and angst following a far from perfect performance against Scotland the previous Saturday had continued unabated.
Sexton reminded his squad mates of the need for all of them to take responsibility for delivering the improvements required to stop a team that had won eight championship matches in a row and was gathering further momentum under new head coach Wayne Pivac.
He also wanted the next day’s performance to provide the platform for his team to display just how much playing for their country means to this group.
Well, Saturday’s bonus-point victory over the Welsh delivered both those things and more, silencing, at least momentarily, the naysayers who fear a continuation of the miseries of 2019.
Ireland were bristling on the gain line, inventive and multi-dimensional in attack, and clinical inside the 22 as exemplified by four contrasting tries. From Jordan Larmour both jinking and muscling his way through four Welsh defenders through Tadhg Furlong’s power, with assistance from the equally robust Rob Herring to Josh van der Flier’s finishing of a driving maul just after half-time and the excellent Andrew Conway finishing a sweeping attacking move to claim the bonus point for Ireland, there was variety, grace, grunt and ambition in the way the home side went about its business.
Furlong’s score was a swift response to Tomos Williams’ sharp try in reply to Larmour’s opener. Van der Flier’s try also lifted spirits after the loss of the excellent Robbie Henshaw and Welsh fly-half Dan Biggar to a clash of heads while Conway’s capping off of his best Test performance to date compounded Welsh profligacy as Hadleigh Parkes lost control of the ball during the grounding of what would have been a potentially game-changing try on 55 minutes.
All of which gives head coach Andy Farrell two wins from two in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations and enables him to prepare for the next round, a trip to Twickenham on February 23, with confidence and momentum.
It also vindicates Farrell’s decision to make Sexton his captain. The appointment of a 34-year-old ahead of younger candidates, most notably lock James Ryan, 11 years Sexton’s junior, appeared to many to be an indication of Farrell’s aversion to risk-taking, which could also be seen in his team selection at the weekend.
Yet the reports coming out of the captain’s eve of match meeting confirm Farrell’s view that he picked the right man for the job.
Front-row replacement Dave Kilcoyne described Sexton as looking around the team room, “just looking at everybody and he was like, ‘the quality in this dressing room is absolutely insane. There’s world-class players throughout’.
Kilcoyne added: “The respect that the lads have for Johnny Sexton in Irish rugby is incredible. We had a meeting last night, the captain’s meeting, and Johnny chaired it, and you’re almost clinging on to the words he says.
“And it’s the same with Andy Farrell when he speaks. He’s got an incredible way of speaking.
“Certain people have it, you meet people in life who have it, when they talk they just control the room. It’s complete honesty, it’s straight-talking, it’s positive. But at the same time, we look at our work-ons and it’s just straight good messages. So there’s no more you can ask for.”
Try-scoring full-back Jordan Larmour was similarly inspired by his captain.
“Any time he’s talking, everyone’s listening, he always says the right things at the right time,” Larmour said. “He’s a great leader and he made a great point this week, when he’s giving out to you in training, it’s because he’s trying to get the best out of you.
“You know, he’s not doing it to be mean about it, or anything like that. He’s trying to get the best out of you and that’s a sign of great leadership. He’s been doing a fantastic job so far and we’re all behind him.”
That should be music to Farrell’s ears. He has been similarly impressed by Sexton’s leadership.
“Honestly, it’s new to him and you can ask him — I’m asking quite a bit of him and he’s coming to the table with his own ideas,” the head coach said. “That’s exactly what we want. He’s in control, isn’t he? 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.
“The meeting on Friday night? That’s his meeting, for him to do as he sees fit.
“The chat all week from the boys that he drags out of them is second to none because it brings that unity, that honesty, it brings that trust throughout the group.
“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 after eight weeks (sidelined by a knee ligament injury), he’s been nothing short of sensational “
J Larmour; A Conway, R Henshaw (K Earls, 43 - HIA), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton - captain (R Byrne, 71), C Murray (J Cooney, 72); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 50), R Herring (R Kelleher, 66), T Furlong (A Porter, 66); I Henderson (D Toner, 66), J Ryan; P O’Mahony (M Deegan, 71), J van der Flier, CJ Stander.
L Halfpenny, G North, N Tompkins, H Parkes,J Adams (J McNicholl, 25); D Biggar (J Evans, 43 - HIA), T Williams (G Davies, 46); W.Jones (R Carre, 64), K Owens (R Elias, 73), D Lewis (L Brown, 66); J Ball (A Beard, 71), A W Jones - captain;, A Wainwright (R Moriarty, 46), J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Romain Poite (France).