There is no escaping how this year in Irish rugby year will be remembered.
“As a failure,” said Johnny Sexton. “You can have opinions on why but it is a failure. We didn’t do what we wanted in the Six Nations. We didn’t do what we wanted in the World Cup so there is no other way to look at it.”
Sexton could have avoided the Heineken Champions Cup launch in Cardiff. New Ulster captain Iain Henderson was present while Munster’s Peter O’Mahony got replaced by Rory Scannell. Saracens completely ducked the event but Leinster’s leader showed up at The Principality Stadium on Wednesday morning to almost exclusively answer questions about what went so badly wrong in Japan.
There are multiple regrets but the performance that resulted in the 46-14 quarter-final emptying at the hands of New Zealand stands above the rest.
“Yeah, it’ll be raw for four years,” said the 34-year-old. “It’ll be raw for lads that go to the next World Cup, for the lads that don’t, for the rest of their careers, for the rest of their lives really.”
Sexton spoke about costly “small margins” such as his attempted penalty kick to touch that Richie Mo’unga kept in play before a possible 10-7 scoreboard very quickly became a 17-0 reality.
“I kicked [the same] kick against Samoa that goes in by the five-metre channel and against New Zealand I do exactly the same kick, exactly as I would have practised the day before the game, and it gets slapped back in.
“We carved them open on a set play and we [Sexton and Rob Kearney] run the wrong running line and run into each other. We don’t plan to do that.”
Was that pressure? “No, just mistakes. People make mistakes. We make mistakes in every game. It’s not pressure.”
Sexton repeated the words he confidently delivered on the eve of facing the All Blacks: “We trained unbelievably well. We prepared unbelievably well. There seemed to be a feel of a really special week but we weren’t clinical enough on the day. They obviously played exceptional.”
However, this assertion has been contradicted by former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt twice speaking about the squad being physically unable to prepare properly in the same period of time.
“I think we were a little bit flat on the back of having a few niggles during the week,” said Schmidt on October 19th. “We weren’t quite sure what the team would be until Thursday.”
Sexton was asked to clear up the confusion.
“Unless there was stuff behind the scenes,” he replied. “Obviously Joe would be much more in sync if guys were carrying niggles than I would be for example. I just worry about myself. I felt that we trained brilliantly and that we prepared well.”
Sexton said he had not read or heard Isa Nacewa’s comments about the Ireland management abandoning the Stuart Lancaster-inspired “unstructured play” in early 2019.
“Stuart has come [to Leinster] and had a great impact with us but that hasn’t changed anything from an Irish perspective. Obviously there were new coaches in the other provinces as well. What was it 16 [Leinster] players going to the World Cup? It’s only half of the squad.” (It was 14).
The question gets reframed. There is a narrative put forward by Nacewa that Ireland stagnated after 2018 because of a decision, presumably by Schmidt, to revert to a more conservative approach.
“We didn’t improve enough,” said Sexton. “We didn’t evolve as much but that is all in hindsight. We obviously tried to and we didn’t. It’s tough to take.
“I know everyone wants to say ‘Oh it’s a quarter-final again, you didn’t do this and that’ but each quarter-final has been different. We knew coming into this World Cup that it was going to come down to the quarter-final and it was going to be South Africa or New Zealand. So it was blatantly going to be unbelievably tough. There was a good likelihood that we were going to lose in a quarter-final. It was going to be a 50-50 game at best against a top quality team.
“Where it hurts us is that we didn’t play as well as we can or as well as we could have or as well as I thought we prepared, so we will never know what we could have done. That’s the part that hurts.”
He remains adamant that a disconnect did not exist between the players and the coaches. “There were times throughout the year where the coaches challenged us to improve and we challenged the systems or whatever you want to call it.
“We were trying to do things together. It’s not like them and us. We tried to improve things from 2018. It was obviously hard because it was such a good year for us.”
Sexton confirmed that the IRFU would “employ a company to come in and ask us questions” as part of an overall World Cup review process. “No one will be as honest as we will be with each other. But it’s important that we stick together. What won’t happen is no one will be thrown under the bus. There’s no one person at fault for this, there was no one person you can point the finger at.”
Penguin Ireland have confirmed that “Ordinary Joe,” the Schmidt autobiography, will be released on November 21st. The 54-year-old completed his memoir during the tournament before going on a career break he has already suggested will end next summer.
Sexton fears the worst-case scenario.
“It would be scary if he took over France or somewhere with their players and resources. I don’t know what he’ll do next. He’s living in Dublin for the foreseeable future, so I’m sure we’ll see him around. He’s someone I hope to stay in contact with for the rest of my career and beyond.
“We became close over the years – I know lads slag us about it – but that’s what happens with a 10 and a coach. But you’re always evolving and I’m looking forward to meeting Mike Catt hopefully, if they pick me, to work with him.”
Sexton on playing at World Cup in 2023:
“I am contracted for this season and for next season. My body feels great. I am obsessed with trying to play for as long as I can. I spoke to a lot of guys who have done that – Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn, Paul O’Connell, Rory Best, Peter Stringer, Donncha O’Callaghan – and I have tried to tap into their minds and what they did. A lot of them when they finished in the end had a bad knee or hip or joint. I am very lucky that I have not had many, touch wood. I am still hungry. I have never relied on my speed, so I do not have to worry too much about that. At outhalf I am trying to avoid contact as opposed to going into contact.
“So look, there are lots of things to suggest that I can keep going.
“But I want to keep playing at the top. The day that Leo [Cullen] or Stu [Lancaster] says to me: ‘Look, I think it’s time to go’, I’ll go.
“Or if Andy Farrell says to me: ‘I think you have had enough’ or ‘we are not going to go with you anymore,’ I will be the first to go.
“There have been plenty of 37-year-olds [Sexton will be 38] going to Rugby World Cups and I would love to add my name to that list. But, there are lots of things that have to happen.”