‘World Cup on the radar’ – Johnny Sexton on Ireland’s mentality shift

Johnny Sexton was rested by Ireland in the summer
©PA

When Ireland take on Japan at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, it will be a repeat of the game that the two teams played out at the start of July.

The difference will largely be in the personnel, with skipper Johnny Sexton back in the fold following a rare summer of rest. Turning 36 in July, the Leinster fly-half seems nailed on to win his 100th cap for his country against the Brave Blossoms this weekend.

Joey Carbery stood in admirably for his former mentor during the summer, however given the extra responsibility placed on Sexton as captain by Andy Farrell, more likely than not it will be the former St Mary’s man donning the No. 10 jersey for much of the Autumn Nations Series.

When asked about his upcoming landmark achievement, Sexton laughs, saying, “when you get your first cap at 24, you never think you will get to 100”. It is a fair point, the added pressure of being Ronan O’Gara’s successor no doubt an added pressure at one stage or another, but Sexton has carved his own name into the history books.

Travelling on two British and Irish Lions tours in the last decade, he has played for Ireland at three Rugby World Cups and in 2018 picked up the RTE Sports Person of the Year award, as well as the World Rugby Player of the Year. 

This is all before mentioning the titles won at domestic, continental or international level and now sights are firmly set on competing at a fourth World Cup. France is just two years away at this point, Sexton says that this group that Andy Farrell has gathered have already had discussions about the tournament, a stark contrast to previous regimes. 

“We have already spoken about how we have got a two-year clock ahead of us and how we are going to get ourselves in the position where we are going to that tournament as best we can be, full of confidence and ready to take on the world,” he said. 

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“There is a difference already, because we have mentioned the World Cup two years out. We have put it on the radar, whereas we have never done that before. As long as I have been there, we have talked about it the Summer of, and we have always been very focussed on that is in front of us. 

“You can still see throughout the group, with the young, fresh faces and the younger generation coming through, that it is a focus and why shouldn’t it be? It is the biggest thing you can do in the game, and everyone wants to get there, and everyone wants to do well in it. 

“It is great to have it there in the back of your mind and something to strive for, because if you view it as a journey, then there is always that end point you strive towards.”

Sexton is not the only returner to Andy Farrell’s squad, with Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Conor Murray and Ronan Kelleher all wearing green again following their exploits with the Lions, as six of the group who won caps during the summer also return.

There is a return for Simon Zebo, who returned to Munster following three years in Paris with Racing 92, as Dan Sheehan and Ciaran Frawley will compete for their international debuts. Thomas Ahern and Jamie Osborne are training with the squad as developmental players.

Whilst Sexton remains Ireland’s present, there is likely to be more and more time spent looking to the future. Harry Byrne, Carbery and Frawley are all more than capable of pulling the strings, the primary question is whether they can do that under heavy fire.

“You are always looking behind you to a certain extent,” Sexton said. “But I have always been very forward thinking as well in trying to look after myself and trying to make sure I am the best I can be.

“Because if there are those young guys coming behind you that are doing great stuff, you can only control yourself and that has been my focus, especially in my 30s.

“There is some great talent coming through, there is three guys in the squad, they have got all the things to be a top-quality international and it is on them to display the right attitude to go and do it. 

“It is a bumpy road at 10, I didn’t get my first cap until 24. These guys are much further along the road than I was at that age. 

“I was stuck behind Felipe (Contepomi) at Leinster and my career was going nowhere, so you have just got to be ready when the day comes and those guys have what it takes, they have just got to channel I, work hard and be ready to bounce back from adversity as well.”

With an Autumn Nations schedule that includes Japan, New Zealand and Argentina, it is perhaps one of the sternest three Tests a side will play outside of a World Cup. As Ireland - and Scotland - discovered at the 2019 World Cup, playing Japan is no easy thing, with their 19-12 loss at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa quickly denting the hope of a maiden world title.

Much of the team’s problem in 2019 was as a result of peaking too early. Winning a Grand Slam in 2018 under Joe Schmidt, there was a distinct lack of building towards to the World Cup, slipping to a third-place finish a year later and failing to get past the quarter-finals again.

 
 

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