Jonathan Sexton has enjoyed a storied career, but he has been no stranger to criticism over the course of more than a decade spent in the public eye. His display at Twickenham against England last Sunday was up there with the very worst he has given in a green jersey, and it reignited the discussion over his captaincy of the team, with Ronan O’Gara among those to claim that the armband should be worn by someone else.
O’Gara doesn’t doubt his old friend’s abilities as a player or as a leader, but he knows better than most the pressure that comes with being a No.10, and it was on that basis that he spoke of the issue earlier this week.
Sexton didn’t appear to have been aware of the Munster man’s take when it was put to him yesterday, but he fell in with a long line of players and coaches over the years who have opted to treat everything beyond his immediate circle as white noise.
“I got some great advice recently,” he explained after Ireland’s open training session at Energia Park in Donnybrook. “When you’re leading in an orchestra, you’ve got to turn your back on the audience. That’s something you’ve got to live by.
“Sometimes when things are going well, you can fall into bad habits and you can have a little peek and see what’s going on in the
audience but ... I thought ROG was coaching at La Rochelle! I don’t know why he’s talking about us.”
That last line was delivered in a jocular fashion, but Sexton’s steadfastness in avoiding the debate going on outside the Ireland camp in the wake of that London loss is unshakable. “Keep it coming,” he said of the criticism at one point.
O’Gara’s basis for suggesting that the armband would have been better employed elsewhere was voiced long before the past week. His belief that a No.10 has enough on his plate in terms of leadership and other responsibilities has little difficulty in stacking up.
Sexton admitted that it wasn’t easy trying to lead the collective while making individual mistakes, but he is insistent that the job is “not too much”, that the role wasn’t deemed a factor the other three times he was skipper and Ireland won, and that he will bounce back from this individual and collective failure.
It’s not like he was alone in falling short.
The really frustrating part of last Sunday’s experience was that Ireland had trained specifically with England and the challenge they were likely to — and did — face in mind, but it was all for naught thanks to a combination of what the hosts did well and the visitors did badly.
Ireland had planned a double-tackle on England’s ball carrier off their first lineout of the game, but it didn’t happen. A couple of soak tackles later and the rhythm was set. It’s these small errors that Sexton and his colleagues are on rather than any broad strategic rethink.
It’s a take that is consistent with everything we heard last year when things turned sour. ‘We’re not far away’. ‘It’s one or two silly errors letting us down’. ‘We need to get the basics right’. It’s a view that is harder to swallow the more of these lows we see.
Bottom line is that Ireland continue to blow hot and cold, and nothing speaks louder of their struggles for momentum and the form of 2018, when they were all-conquering
heroes, than their three convincing defeats to England this past 13 months.
“It is what it is,” said Sexton of that run against the old foe. “They have beaten us the last three times so they have obviously been a lot better than us, but it is frustrating for us because we feel there is a lot more than should have happened in those performances.
“Look, take away the one before the World Cup when it was two teams at totally different stages of their cycles. They were ready to play the World Cup, we had barely done any contact and just had a hard week in Portugal.
“So take that out, and the last two Six Nations games have obviously been a lot closer, but they have had us on both days. So it is something that we will try and put right the next time, but it will be a long wait for that.”