“I don’t dance,” said Johnny Sexton, his face darkening, as though his very sense of self was affronted by the suggestion. This despite the fact that a full Aviva Stadium and a million and change watching on television had seen him run and skip and, yes Johnny, jig away in triumph after his final conversion had put Ireland 15 points ahead with a little over 10 minutes left on the clock.
“It was embarrassing, wasn’t it,” laughed Andy Farrell, sitting beside him, stirring the pot. “I was cringing.”
Johnny: “I jumped in the air, no? I didn’t dance. I’m not a dancer, I can confirm that.”
Andy: “He will be tonight!”
To be fair to him, this was probably not a night for debating Johnny Sexton’s rumba bona fides. In his last ever Six Nations game, he kicked four from four, became the all-time record points scorer in the tournament, sealed the Grand Slam and lifted his first trophy as Ireland captain. We can leave his come-and-get-me plea to the Dancing With The Stars producers for another time.
Sexton was immense, one of the few Irish players who found his groove on Saturday. In that opening spell when Ireland were skittery and unsure of themselves, it was him who was first across the try line, tapping and going from five metres out but ultimately being held up. It was hardly the percentage play and there was more than an element of to-hell-with-this-carry-on about it. But his gift for sensing the mood of a game and doing his damnedest to change it would survive a nuclear strike.
And later, when England were pushing and clawing coming up on the hour mark, dousing the Aviva crowd in their moment of doubt and pain, it was a combination of Ryan Baird and Sexton who got Ireland up the pitch. Baird’s turnover when outnumbered in a ruck on the Ireland 22 was heroic, like a man fishing a lost wedding ring out of a turning cement mixer.
Sexton’s cross-kick into the England 22 moments later was the definitive tide-turner, leaving Anthony Watson looking as though he was painting the interior of a phonebox while attempting to fry an egg. Mack Hansen pounced on Watson’s discombobulation and along with Jimmy O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw, forced him over his own line. The clock was about to turn 60, Ireland had the momentum now to turn the screw. Finally.
“We weren’t just on it today,” Sexton said. “We made some silly errors and that. But we’ve won a Grand Slam. They obviously had a clear game plan today and they came and executed really well. We talk a lot about seeing it and not just guessing and I think we guessed too many times. Thankfully it didn’t cost us. But those are the things we have to learn from going forward.”
They make a formidable pairing, the captain and the coach. When Farrell was let go by England in 2015, it was Sexton who urged Joe Schmidt to go and get him and bring him into the Ireland fold. His experience of working under Farrell with the Lions had stuck with him and now, eight years on, the fruits are obvious to everyone.
Not that it has been straightforward. Sexton’s very public show of annoyance at being taken off in the Stade de France in 2020 didn’t go down well and the pair of them had to work through it. That the Ireland captain brought it up on Saturday night without anyone even asking about it is a fair indication of the strength of the bond between them ever since.
“Since day one, he’s put his own stamp on it,” Sexton said of Farrell’s influence around the place. “The best thing about him is he hasn’t changed one bit from going from assistant to head coach. He’s still very popular, even with the lads he doesn’t pick. We’ve been able to – how do I put this? – bounce back even after I let myself down against France. That was a low point? A real low point.”
Farrell (stirring again): “For you or for me?”
Sexton (smiling): “For me. And this is a high point. But I hope it’s not the highest point. He’s a very special coach. When you have him, Paul O’Connell, Simon Easterby, Catty, John Fogarty all motivating you during the week, it’s a very special dressingroom to be part of. All credit to him really for putting it together. And yeah, roll on the World Cup.”
That’s the thing. Sport is relentless and unreasonable. Even on a weekend like this, the World Cup towers over all. In any other year, a Grand Slam-winning Ireland team would be a shoo-in for every team award going when December rolls around. But they know that if they bomb out of the World Cup early, it will feel like a century has passed since the glories of Paddy’s weekend.
Sexton wouldn’t have it any other way. There he sat on Saturday night, an hour after the final whistle, satisfied but sore and already thinking of the next thing. The groin injury he picked up near the end wasn’t looking good, he admitted.
He hadn’t really been able to take in the standing ovation he got as he walked off because he was drilling the Irish medical staff on how long he was going to be out of action. The Champions Cup showdown with Ulster is less than a fortnight away.
Onwards, always onwards. Dancing his own dance, in his own time.