"We felt it was there for the taking and we’ll live with that forever" - Johnny Sexton
The Ireland captain feels 'you guys' in the media are not convinced his team can challenge the very best in world rugby.
Johnny Sexton returned to the Ireland fold and rallied the troops by defending them to the media, before and after their win over Scotland. One hopes James Ryan was taking note as this was very much a case of the captain trying to capture the narrative.
Pressed, by the press, after the 31-16 win over Scotland, Sexton was not as bullish as he had been on TV and admitted that Ireland are not at the top table yet, and they should be judged by the highest of standards. If everyone was agreeing, then, where was the issue?
But this was Captaincy 101 - front up to the TV cameras and back your teammates to the hilt. All involved enjoyed seeing the fire and hearing the words.
Perhaps if Joey Carbery was fully fit, or if Harry Byrne was a year further down the road, there might be more asking about (Test rugby) life after Sexton. As it stands, Ireland can't do without him. He remains vital to the Irish cause until a new contender comes and shoves him off the stage.
Post-match, Sexton talked up the Scots as a 'really good team' and noted how they had pushed France close the weekend before. He continued:
"Us as a team, we're not at the top table yet in terms of we haven't been able to beat France and England away from home and that's what the top teams are able to do. We're just below that at the moment but I'm confident in this team and coaching staff that we can go to that level and that we go there.
"Hopefully we are able to get there because we have some tough fixtures at the start of the Six Nations but today was a good end of the year. We just need to keep evolving, keep improving. I think we showed some really good stuff."
Sexton commented, earlier in the week, that folks should remember that 2019, under Joe Schmidt's management, had been no walk in the part.
Asked, then, if it was too harsh to be judging Andy Farrell's transitional side on the 2018 Grand Slam high delivered by Schmidt, the captain replied:
"No, we’re judging ourselves by the highest of standards. We wish we beat England away, we wish we beat France away. We learned some valuable lessons, some harsh lessons in those big games away from home and yeah, we wish we were in there with a Six Nations trophy under our belt, we felt it was there for the taking and we’ll live with that forever. There is no-one that hurts more than us when we don’t perform on the big days but it’s what you take away from it and there are some young guys who played that day that will take a huge amount from it.
"We are happy with the way we are improving. I admitted that we hadn’t shown it in the full 80 minutes performance. We probably didn’t show it with a full 80-minute performance tonight but that’s Test match rugby.
"It’s not as easy as turning up and having it your own way for 80 minutes. It’s different to any other type of rugby out there, including Champions Cup and that so it’s just, it is what it is. We’ve just got to focus on our jobs and try and keep getting better and that’s what our coaches are asking of us and that’s what we are demanding of each other, that we keep getting better game on game and campaign on campaign."
Looking ahead to the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, if Ireland can start their campaign with an away win over a (currently) struggling Wales, they then have France at home. Away games follow against Italy and Scotland before England are welcomed for a finalé in Dublin.
It is not inconceivable to say that England game could well be the championship decider and there may even be a Grand Slam in the offing. Asked if Ireland could bridge that 'top-table' gap with Tadhg Furlong and others (such as Dan Leavy, Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose) back in the fold, Sexton commented:
"That’s probably a question for the coaches. Obviously, Tadhg Furlong would be missed by many sides in the world. He’s that highly thought of in terms of a tighthead and his ability, what he can do with the ball, what he can do off the ball, everything, he’s the full package. But Andrew Porter has been outstanding for us. But obviously to have Tadhg Furlong in there with the tightheads it makes the squad much better.
"I could throw a few other lads that are sort of top-class players that haven’t been around too often that hopefully we can get back but it’s squad effort, you are never going to have 100% of your top players fit and it’s how you can perform when you are missing a couple. Hopefully we can get more guys back fit over the Christmas.
"There are going to be times, Europe-Europe, then lads will get a bit of time off. One lad will play one interpro, some lads will play a couple and then Europe-Europe, so there’s a lot of rugby to be played before the Six Nations. You might get a few back and then a couple might fall by the wayside, it’s an attritional game. It's tough to play fit all the time."
Sexton was projecting the air of a captain confident in his side as one Test rugby year has passed by with another fast approaching. All Irish supporters can do is hope this Irish side go into next year's championship with as many of those 'top-class' players available.
They'll need as many of them as they can get to avoid being best of the rest agan.
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Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts, and has already featured interviews with Brian O'Driscoll, Nigel Owens, Sean Cronin, Shane Williams, Mike Brown, CJ Stander, Ugo Monye, Sene Naoupu and Dan Leo.