Johnny Sexton: Joe Schmidt’s drive has pushed us this far

Pic:Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton was just four months and five caps into his international career this time eight years ago as he sat in the Shelbourne Hotel and listened to the head coach geeing up the troops ahead of Ireland’s last Six Nations outing.

The championship was beyond them, a heavy defeat to the French in Paris seeing to that in round two, but there was still something solid to play for as Scotland came to town for the Irish side’s last game in residency at Croke Park.

“Declan Kidney spoke about how Triple Crowns were hard to come by and I looked around and saw Ronan (O’Gara) and Paul (O’Connell) and Brian (O’Driscoll) sort of roll their eyes up to heaven, as they had four of them at that stage,” Sexton remembers.

The Leinster out-half finally got his hands on that particular piece of silverware in Twickenham on Saturday, but it was a bauble most observers overlooked as Ireland went about writing a more illustrious chapter in the nation’s history.

What this team has done is remarkable. Transformative, even.

The Grand Slam will always take top billing when this year is reviewed, but the record 12 wins in a row and the first pair of wins in Paris and London since 1972 are standout points in themselves.

There was no sense of a journey ending at the week-end. The Grand Slam is not the destination for this group of players, just a significant marker on a longer road that is pointed inexorably towards Japan and even beyond.

There is a sense of purpose, clarity and confidence to this group of players that has been facilitated by Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff and it was evident long before that dramatic opening win at the Stade de France.

“It’s probably the first time we’ve been allowed speak about the Grand Slam before the campaign,” said Sexton. “

It was blatantly obvious to the older guys – Keith Earls, myself, Rob, Rory – that we wanted to win a Grand Slam.

“We have always been very process-driven so we spoke about it at the start and then parked it and went game by game. Literally. Even this week we didn’t speak about a Grand Slam, we just spoke about putting in our best performance.

“We knew we had to get a result against that side.”

Maybe the most remarkable aspect to all this is the fact that Schmidt has managed this at a time of considerable flux in the squad.

Had Ireland lost a few games this last two months, the likelihood is that ‘transition’ would be the buzz word right now.

Look back two years and the Kiwi was tempering expectations ahead of the 2016 Six Nations and putting it out there that a place in the top half of the table would be a decent return for an Irish side blooding new players and dealing with injury.

There was no such suggestion from him this time around.

Like the players, Schmidt knew what was within their capabilities despite the volume of fresh faces - or probably because of them - but that shouldn’t diminish the scale of the achievement.

Only 16 of the 30 players who featured in this championship were on duty in Chicago back in November of 2016 when New Zealand were bested. Ireland are now doing great, historic things with an ever-changing cast and crew. This is unprecedented.

“It is a very different team isn’t it? Although the spine is very similar,” said Sexton. “That is what makes this campaign so special: that so many new guys came in, and we should give so much credit to the coaching staff (given the squad lost) the calibre of back rowers it did.

“There were four guys who were injured and who were a huge part of this team over the last four years. And then to lose Robbie (Henshaw) for most of the campaign, among others, and guys just kept coming in. Garry (Ringrose) came in and, even though he has not played a lot of rugby, his two performances were incredible.

“It just seemed to fit this year.”

Oh, were it all that simple.

Ireland enjoyed good fortune this time around, no doubt about it, but if any side in history earned its slice or two of luck then it is a team which has slaved zealously to carry out the bidding of its demanding and dedicated taskmaster.

There is a ruthlessness and a work ethic to this Ireland team that is borne of Schmidt’s intensity and drive for perfection. It’s a relentlessness that can grate on a player’s nerves at times, but buy-in has never been less than total.

“He keeps you on your toes,” said a smiling Sexton. “He, eh, how do I put this nicely? At times during the week, you are driven demented with him, but you know he is doing it for a reason – putting pressure on you in training, at meetings to make sure on Saturday every box is ticked, to make sure all the prep is done. He is an incredible coach.

“His record with Irish teams speaks for itself. He was three years with Leinster and got six finals.

“Five years with Ireland and we have won three championships, a Grand Slam. The World Cup obviously didn’t go to plan, but there are lots of reasons why that didn’t go to plan. Hopefully, we can have a good crack at the next one.”

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