Johnny Sexton maintains he has turned his phone off this week, such has been the demand for tickets. But, at some point, today or tomorrow, he will have to turn it on again, if only because he’ll also have been inundated with goodwill messages from not only family and friends, but so many team-mates, coaches and maybe even opponents over the last 14 seasons playing international rugby.
“Of course, yeah. On big weeks, they do come in,” said Sexton.
He wants to play down the subplot of him contesting his 60th and last Six Nations match against England at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 5pm). Yet the big allure from the very outset of potentially playing for a title or Slam on home soil is to be doing so in front of more family and friends than was the case in 2014, 2015 and 2018.
And in front of a home crowd too.
“The amount of support we’ve had throughout the championship has been incredible. It’s not lost on us. We do acknowledge it and we do speak about it.
“Number one for us is inspiring the country. That’s number one. That’s the first thing that we have on the list.
“All the other stuff comes next: performance, winning, but trying to do everyone proud is definitely it, and the support we get on these weeks makes you understand why you appreciate it so much.”
Sexton is always considered and polite in his dealings with the media, but you sensed a slight discomfort in the focus on this being his last Six Nations game, in addition to all the other potential distractions out there.
At 37, his durability and resilience have helped him compete in a 14th championship, but he couldn’t have done it without the help of others.
“I think what I’ve done is surround myself with good people. I’m very blessed to have the coaches that I have to put the faith in me post the last World Cup.
“A lot of other coaches would have said: ‘There’s no chance he can get there’. So, yeah, it’s the people that you rely on, your team-mates.
“It’s very hard to sit here and talk about myself all the time. It’s not about me this week, it’s about something bigger. It’s about the Grand Slam. It’s about the championship.
“We need to try to get away from that as well. We need to get our best ever performance out there because it’s going to be needed.”
This was where his focus was, not on the personalised questions, and certainly not those designed to make him reflective.
“I try not to look back too much because you want to keep pushing forward. I suppose the longer you go on, the more you want to make the most of it because you know it’s the last one.
“You’ve only got a certain amount of games left, so you do want to make the most of it. So, no, I haven’t had that sit down to reflect on everything. I think I’ll leave that to next year.”
He doesn’t have any superstitious habits which he likes to resort to on match days, so this Saturday will be no exception.
“I am structured enough in how I build up to the games and what I do at certain times. But I was probably more superstitious when I was younger – if I didn’t have my certain kicking tee or certain boots or whatever – but I think Faz has knocked that out of us,” he admitted, revealingly.
While England did beat Ireland 42-6 in that 2003 Grand Slam shoot-out, three times in the Six Nations era the English chariot has rolled into Dublin seeking the final leg of a Grand Slam only to be denied, in 2001, 20011 and 2017, by an Irish side cast in the role of party spoilers. Now England are in that role.
“Every time you play England it’s different, I suppose. We’ve had games where we’ve been the spoilers, where they’ve come looking for a win, and I suppose [it’s about] trying to reverse it and learn the lessons from well, why did we do what we did? What caused us to do that?
“It’s probably trying to flip it a little and learn from that.”
Sexton is also wary of a wounded England side who are playing for pride and are liable to go back to basics and recall Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi alongside Henry Slade in the same 10-12-13 axis that helped beat Ireland at the Aviva in 2019. The last time this trio played together was in the World Cup quarter-final win over Australia.
“We do know the threats that are coming. You look at their team. If you predict their front five, they have probably got four or five Lions up front.
“They have got a lot of players through their backline. Farrell, Tuilagi, Freddie Steward is on top form. So, they’ve got some outstanding players.
“If they bring back someone like Ben Youngs, over 100 caps. They’re a very, very good team. They didn’t show that last week but that can happen to people.
“I don’t know, it was like France just hit them out of moments of brilliance. It wasn’t like they were all over England for the whole game. England were 27-10 down and going at the French line. If England score there they’re back in the game and it’s going to look a whole lot different.
“It just got away from them. I’ve been in teams before where that’s happened and you know that you’re not as far away as everyone thinks. We have acknowledged how good a team they are and we are fully aware of the threat that they are coming with. They’re a really good team.”