Targeted Johnny Sexton aims to keep getting up and getting on for Ireland

Looking ahead to this weekend’s matches last week, it was impossible to say with any certainty who was going to win the first two ties, they were on a knife edge, too close to call, at least for the neutral among us. Looking ahead to this afternoon’s encounter in Rome the only question in anyone’s minds is whether Ireland will beat Italy by 20 points or by 40.
Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

Italy are ranked 15th in the world, Ireland second. It’s akin to seventh-placed Scotland playing against the country ranked 20th in world rugby, Spain.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will take the opportunity to give a couple of players a rest: Rory Best drops to the bench to be replaced by Sean Cronin for what is the Leinster man’s first Six Nations start. Ultan Dillane and Dave Kilcoyne go from the off while Johnny Sexton, who was playing well within himself even before the stand-off limped off Murrayfield last time out, will get another chance to unearth the best of himself.

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Gregor Townsend made quite a meal out of the Peter O’Mahony tackle that ended Stuart Hogg’s game – the coach was still blaming it for the loss 12 days after the event – but Sexton revealed that the Munsterman also put him off the field after accidentally stamping on his ankle.

Ireland also aired some beefs of their own, notably four borderline late tackles on their playmaker, including Allan Dell’s piledriver just as Sexton sent Jacob Stockdale under the sticks. The Irish feel Sexton is targeted and Sexton agrees.

“I was enjoying it, it was just disappointing to have to come off,” he said last week. “Like you say, [they were] borderline, it’s just I suppose the only frustration is I don’t think there was another one after I left the pitch or there wasn’t on anyone else so it must have been a [Scottish] tactic.”

When asked specifically about being targeted, Sexton had this to say: “Obviously, I’m aware that it’s happening because I’m on the other end of it but, no, I don’t really see what’s said or being talked about or written about.

“I’ve given my side of it in terms of what I’ve said already. They’re all on the borderline, I probably got a worse one against England than any of the ones against Scotland. Look, it is what it is. What can I do? I think I’ve tried every sort of outcome possible.

“I’ve tried to stay down a little bit when I could get straight back up, I’ve tried to get straight back up, I’ve tried to give out to the ref, I’ve tried to say nothing, I’ve tried to react, I’ve tried to smack someone in the head which didn’t go too well. So like what can you do? I just have to get up and get on with it. I felt I was doing that against Scotland.”

Before Joe Schmidt took the Ireland reins Sexton had a two season spell at Racing’92, where Scotland’s Finn Russell currently plays. Townsend was bemoaning the fact that his star ten was injured while playing for the club last Sunday and Sexton recalled similar woes from his time across the ditch.

“It was a sh*t show at times, trying to get in for [Irish] camps,” said the stand-off. “Like, last week I wouldn’t have been here if I was still in France. I had hurt my thumb against England one year and they wanted to keep me in Paris for the rest of the championship so there was just pulling and dragging. It was far from ideal, it’s not a good place to be in for the player or team.”

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One of the reasons Sexton finds himself in the firing line is his insistence on playing close to the gain line, just as Russell does. It makes a huge difference to a team’s attack because the ball is released so close to the opposition defenders that they have little or no time to react if they don’t anticipate where, exactly, the ball will end up.

It is what makes Sexton one of the best in the world and he is not about to change his ways now regardless of any “afters” that might come his way.

“The only thing I’d say is it’s frustrating because there are other out-halves who play flat to the line and it doesn’t happen to them.”

It sounds like the outhalf is feeling victimised?

“No, not really, I’m just trying to get my head round it. Like I said, no one’s at fault. It’s just the way it is. Get up and get on with it.”

No one, it is sad to say, bothered to ask him anything about Italy.