Andy Farrell's post-match claim about Johnny Sexton has started one hell of a debate
"Grand Slams are not just won on nights like this."
Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton both know what it is like to be compared to those that have gone before. To be held up for comparison against men that are considered Irish rugby legends.
While Sexton secured his place as one of Ireland's true greats about six years ago, he has not stopped and added to his legacy again in this 2023 Six Nations. Farrell, for all of the strides he made with this Ireland side, had that historic series win against the All Blacks and as Triple Crown to his side of the head coach ledger.
Later this year, in France, both men could seal top billing in the Irish rugby GOAT conversations but we should all know by now just how different and sterner a full-go World Cup is to even the most testing of Six Nations campaigns.
Saturday night was one for celebration and reflection, though. It was a chance to head out in Dublin as Grand Slam champions and toast to all the work that got Ireland there.
"I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, a bit sad," reflected Andy Farrell. "I don’t know.
"It's a weird feeling at this moment in time. I’m just elated for the boys, just to get it over the line. Because it meant so much for them, especially being here, at home. Only the fourth one in Irish history, you know?
"So we felt a duty that we couldn’t let people down. I would say there is a sense of relief to go get the job done, but immensely proud."
Andy Farrell on Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton reflected, in the Aviva Stadium media room, as his Ireland teammate celebrated nearby, that Andy Farrell asking him to captain his country was one of the proudest days of his career.
He dreamed not only of playing for Ireland as a youngster, he would confess, but of being the captain too. Leading Ireland to a first ever Grand Slam on home soil, then, may just be his the new No.1 for proudest days in his career.
For the head coach sitting next to him, there is no doubt that Sexton is Ireland's greatest ever. Farrell commented:
"It's unbelievably fitting that, in my opinion, the best player ever to play for Ireland is able to sign off on a Grand Slam on St Patrick's Day (weekend), in front of his home crowd.
"For captain Johnny here to finish his Six Nations campaign - he's been saying all week that this is what dreams are made of, it doesn't come around that often. There's a lot of stars that have aligned over the last eight weeks and accumulated into this evening."
Jamie Heaslip was banging the drum of Sexton being Ireland's greatest ever player, last year, and Fergus McFadden has also said likewise of his former Leinster and Ireland teammate. Andy Farrell adding his endorsement has given life to a genuine debate now.
To me, it is unfair to compare the amateur and professional eras. Jack Kyle, Willie John McBride, Tony O'Reilly, Ollie Campbell & Co. were legends in their time but it is too skewed to put them up against lads like Sexton, Caelan Doris and Conor Murray, who have known nothing other than full-blown professionalism.
It is best to land the 'best ever' debate in the professional era - 1995 until present day - while noting it took rugby union about five or six years to even resemble something that you could call professional. If I were picking a top three from the professional era, I would go:
- Brian O'Driscoll
- Johnny Sexton
- Paul O'Connell
- Tadhg Furlong
- Keith Wood
Johnny Sexton praise for Andy Farrell
"Since day one, he has put his own stamp on it," Sexton reflected, when asked about Andy Farrell.
"I think the best thing about him is he hasn’t changed one bit from going from assistant to head coach, he’s still very popular even with the lads he doesn’t pick!
"[Losing to France in 2020] was a low point, a real low point for me," Sexton added. "And this is a high point, but I hope it’s not the highest point.
"Andy is a very special coach. When you have him, Paul O’Connell, Simon Easterby, Mike Catt, and John Fogarty motivating you during the week, it’s a pretty special dressing room to be part of. All credit to him really for putting it together.
"Roll on the World Cup, that’s what we need to focus on now."
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