If the current season could be distilled into a single game, then Johnny Sexton believes he and his team-mates are ready to mount a spectacular second-half comeback.
It may not ultimately compare with Sexton’s inspirational performance in the 2011 Heineken Cup final against Northampton, but after enduring a tough opening half Sexton thinks both Leinster and Ireland are ready to prove what they’re capable of.
At international level, Sexton experienced World Cup heartbreak, being forced to watch the quarter-final humiliation from the stands, while Leinster went out of Europe before Christmas Day.
Things have picked up recently for the province, and with a potentially redemptive Six Nations on the horizon, a rousing finale is nicely set up.
“Our performance level has gone up massively in the last five or six games,” he said.
“We even showed against Toulon away in the first-half, obviously [we had] a terrible second-half. And at home we did well in the first-half, put them to the sword like few other teams have done in recent years, but we just couldn’t back it up in the second-half. I feel we have turned the corner, we are on the right road.
“We have a long way to go before we fulfil our potential but I feel like we are on our way.”
Sexton says he’s in a good place personally right now, but the World Cup hangover delivered more of a headache than he expected.
“I had to get over the disappointment of the World Cup, especially personally, missing out on most of the France game and the Argentina game were the biggest disappointments of my career,” he said.
“Particularly as I had done absolutely everything right in the build-up to it.
“I felt I was in a really good place physically and mentally, but then for it all to unravel was pretty hard to take. It was tough to get over but then I came back here and came into it straight away.
“There were a couple of poor performances but then I thought I did well in a couple of other games and found some form.”
The 30-year-old believes his poor performances may have been exaggerated because they came in high-profile games, but believes he’s been getting back to his best in recent PRO12 encounters.
Keeping Leo Cullen, the Leinster coach, and Joe Schmidt, his Ireland coach, happy is top of Sexton’s agenda, and he admits to ignoring much of the public reaction to his game.
“I would love to listen to everyone’s opinion when things are going well but that would be a distraction,” he said.
“I try not to get too much of it. You get people asking are you okay after the stick you have been getting. But I feel like I have turned a bit of a corner and am playing well.
“I am looking forward to this weekend [Champions Cup v Wasps] first and foremost, because it is a big game but it is hard not to look too far past that. But it is a big few months for us and hopefully a big end to the season here as well.”
Wales are up first for Ireland in next month’s Six Nations, and for Sexton, it’s a welcome return to being able to give the national team 100% before and after each game, in contrast with the last two years when he was based in France.
“I am looking forward to a Six Nations where, if I am selected, I am not worrying about having to travel back from a game the previous week or back to another game immediately after we have played,” he explained.
“All those things matter and they take it out of you. And I do feel quite good physically.”
The out-half also came into last year’s competition cold, having spent 12 weeks out of the game following multiple concussions.
It didn’t ultimately hamper Ireland’s ambitions, but Sexton believes he’ll be better this season, having played regularly in the run-up to the competition.
“It was an unique position not playing for 12 weeks and having to play for your country straight away, it was something I wouldn’t like to do again,” he conceded.
“It was a tough week, preparation-wise, because you had nothing to base it on. Even sometimes having bad performances can be a good thing. You have something to go off, something to work on.
“Going in off good performances, you have a lot of confidence. But, going in off 12 weeks of nothing was pretty tough.
“I’m in a much better place this year which is great.”
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