Ireland v England: Johnny Sexton focused on team over personal narrative ahead of final Six Nations game

Captain does not want to be a distraction as he looks forward to ‘special’ week

The “Long Goodbye” has stepped up a notch this week with Saturday’s tilt at a Grand Slam against England at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 5pm) representing his last game in the Guinness Six Nations.

But speaking at his final midweek press conference of a hitherto momentous campaign, it was clear that Sexton did not want this narrative to be centre stage, lest it become a distraction from the primary business at hand.

This was evident when he was immediately asked about this week being a special one for himself and his family.

“Yeah, in the background definitely, it’s special, of course. But it’s more about the team this week and getting the best performance that we can out there.


“I’d never be able to live with myself if you don’t turn up and play well so that’s the focus. You take the emotion out of it, it’s going to be emotional anyway. You’re playing England at home with something on the line, so it’s always what you’ve wanted to do and where you wanted to be.

“It’s not the last game with this team, well I certainly hope not. We’ve got a lot more of the journey left so I’m not really thinking like that,” said Sexton.

“This is the last Six Nations game but there’s so much ahead, please God, if I stay lucky and avoid injuries. There’s hopefully a World Cup, there’s hopefully some knockout games with Leinster ahead in the Aviva so I’m trying to get away from the fact that it’s this big last thing. It’s just a cup final and that’s all we’re thinking about.”

Sexton being Sexton, he’d have looked at the 2023 Six Nations itinerary and couldn’t but have seen the potential for Ireland to seal not only a fourth Grand Slam, but a first coronation in Dublin. Even when Sexton was part of the title triumphs in 2014 and 2015, they were completed in Edinburgh and Paris.

“It’s something that we identified very early and said, ‘imagine this happening, imagine having a shot at it at home in front of your family, friends’ and now it’s a big occasion.

“It’s about dealing with that, embracing it and getting a good performance out there that warrants putting us in a position to win the game.”

Whereas he allowed his mind to wander about what it would mean to him for Ireland to complete a Slam in Lansdowne Road when asked in the immediate aftermath of last Sunday’s win in Murrayfield, he game the same question more of a straight bat three days later.

“Once I start getting dragged into that, you start getting away from how you’re going to make that happen which is process, performance, and making sure you’re nailed on.

“I’m trying to get away from it as much as I can. I knew the questions were going to come. I have got a bit more emotional as I have gone on so it will definitely be trying to hold that back but use it as well because it will hopefully be a special day.”

In this, he added: “Like we said from the start, this is where we wanted to be. There’s no point in going in on ourselves now. What’s got us to this point is good performances, probably not where we wanted it to be across all the games, but we’re hoping that we can get our best performance out there of the campaign, that’s what we’re certainly trying to do.”

The captain, leadership group, Andy Farrell and the assistant coaches have discussed what sort of mentality they should bring to this game against a wounded England amid such an enormous occasion.

“We do understand the challenge that’s coming. England are a very, very good team. Last week, they will admit they didn’t show that but we know that the team that’s picked for us, we’re expecting some more experienced guys to come back and really shore them up,” said Sexton, most probably with Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi in mind.

“So, it’s going to be a really tough game, like it always is against England. I’m sure they’ll say they’ve got nothing to lose and that’s a dangerous opponent. We need to make sure we turn up and play really well.”

Still, there’s no getting away from trying to win this thing in front of extended family and friends, and the presence of his brother Mark as the backs and skills coach with the Irish Under-20s team which will be seeking a Grand Slam against England in Cork on Sunday adds to the familial melting pot.

“I go home today for, whatever, half the day and then back into camp tomorrow. Look, it goes over the kids’ heads, most of it. They do kinda come out with some mad stuff the odd time. Luca is at the age now where he understands what’s going on and he’s looking forward to wanting to come on the pitch at the end of the game. He knows that he only comes on if we win.”

Another motivation then.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times