Triple Crowns weren’t high on the agenda when Jonathan Sexton began life as an international but the Racing Metro out-half would dearly love to claim the honour when Ireland face England at Twickenham on Saturday week.
The 28-year-old has won 40 caps over the last five seasons and, though success with Leinster was almost perennial prior to his move to Paris, his Test career has been one of frustration rather than fulfilment.
Sexton’s experience sums up how Ireland have slipped from the days under Eddie O’Sullivan when Triple Crowns became old hat and a first season under Declan Kidney when a first Grand Slam in 61 years was claimed.
Sexton made his debut against Fiji on the back of that latter success and admits a November defeat of South Africa and subsequent Six Nations wins over England and Wales lured him into a false sense of expectancy at the time.
That was until Scotland claimed an unlikely 23-20 win at Croke Park and, though the loss of another Triple Crown was the least of the reasons for the side’s disappointment at the time, Sexton admits perceptions have since changed.
“It would be great to win a piece of silverware and the Triple Crown is one, I suppose, in a weird way. I remember that Scotland game. It was almost like the Triple Crown wasn’t the big deal because the guys had just come off the back off four of them in a short space of time.
“Now, it would be huge after the last few seasons that we’ve had. I took it for granted. Looking back, I would have loved it. I haven’t won one. It would be fantastic to do it. It would be another stepping stone to potentially winning the championship.
“You can’t do either of them without beating England at Twickenham.”
Whether that can be achieved at this early stage of the team’s development under Joe Schmidt is another thing but the signs are positive after the opening wins against Scotland and Wales.
Twickenham will, as Paul O’Connell has warned, be a step up again. Courtney Lawes has already spoken of a “brawl” on Saturday week as Stuart Lancaster’s side look to build on a whitewash of Scotland in Edinburgh.
England hold the bragging rights given they have won the last three meetings but the Ireland side that goes out this time may contain as many as 10 men who know what victory takes in southwest London.
Sexton believes they have what it takes.
“I hope so,” he said. “It’s got a good mixture anyway. It’s got a few of the really experienced guys with Paul, Brian, Darce, Rory Best, these guys that have won the Grand Slam, won in England, won Triple Crowns.
“The other guys underneath that have been in the middle, they were on the outskirts of that Grand Slam-winning team. They would have learned a lot from then, but haven’t really achieved success. We’re hoping to take that next step.
“We’ll rely on them and we’ve got the younger guys coming through who are hungry as well and pushing everyone on. I think there is the right blend there and we do have the right guy in charge to lead us forward.”
The squad has already discussed how they have won twice now without the likes of Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris and others and that greater depth was evidenced further by the withdrawal of Paul O’Connell before the hour last Saturday.
“You see Paul go off and you go ‘shit’,” said Sexton who was one of a handful of players struck by a stomach bug before the Welsh game, “but Dan [Tuohy] had played the week before and that gave his confidence that boost.”
Sexton is still croaky after his illness but Lawrence Dallaglio seemed to advocate a greater threat to his health in a newspaper column in which he spoke of tackling him hard to “get him off the field”.
The out-half hasn’t taken that personally.
“I don’t think you can get away with anything, foul play, especially now that the ref can ask to see it on the [replay]. But in terms of doing it fairly, it is a tactic of every team. You are going to try and make the out-half make as many tackles as he can.
“You are going to send as much traffic down his channel as you can. If he has been in a hell of a lot of rucks, it is going to take it out of him, it is going to be tougher to kick the goals if he is tired. Yeah, I think it is a tactic every team would use.”
Maybe, but any Triple Crown won in Twickenham will clearly be earned.
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