Rugby World CupMatch Reaction

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell delighted to have ‘record breaker’ Johnny Sexton back in harness

Rugby World Cup: Outhalf may also see some game time in tougher Tonga game next Saturday

Although inwardly he was probably happier than he was letting on, Johnny Sexton reacted with a weary grin when Andy Farrell good-naturedly brought up a couple of the, eh, veteran outhalf’s landmarks in Ireland’s 82-8 opening World Cup win over Romania in blistering Bordeaux heat.

That was also Ireland’s highest score at a World Cup, but Sexton had clearly already been subjected to some chiding in the victorious dressingroom.

“I mean I heard he broke a few records today. What was the record Johnny?” said Farrell cheerily, with Sexton not remotely inclined to confirm that he had just overtaken John Hayes (37 years and 277 days) as Ireland’s oldest international ever at 38 years and 58 days.

“The oldest player to play at the tournament, that’s the first one,” continued Farrell with a broad grin. “And what was the other one, points scored? Points equalled, 24 points?” he added, in reference to Sexton equalling the 24 points scored by David Humphreys, an Irish record in a World Cup game, although an altogether less celebratory evening in Lens when Ireland lost in a quarter-final playoff against Argentina in 1999.


“It puts him eight points behind the record for the most points scored for any Irish player,” added Farrell, although actually Sexton (1,074 points) has moved to within nine of O’Gara (1.083).

“So, you would think if selected that he’d be able to get that record,” he added, sardonically, before adding: “But the most pleasing point for us was definitely [Sexton’s] 60-odd minutes under the belt and firing on all cylinders, and fit and healthy and ready to go for the rest of the competition.”

The returning captain himself commented: “Like I said last week during the press conference, you’ve got to go and show it, it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained hard, when it comes to the game the pressure is different, the intensity is different.

“So, I definitely needed a game for sure to test it out. I’m happy with some stuff, and not so happy with other things. Like every game, I don’t think you ever play a game where you’re 100 per cent happy. We’ll go and review the game as individuals and as a team, we’ll enjoy tonight and enjoy watching the other games and spend time with other, and get back to work on Monday.”

But what would have satisfied Sexton more than anything was coming through his first 65 minutes of game time in almost six months after overcoming the torn groin he suffered against England in March and his subsequent, post-Champions Cup three-game suspension.

“Yeah six months thinking about it. Obviously part of that was self-inflicted with my mistake but once the plan was clear to me, Andy said: ‘Look you’ve just got to target that first game and to train hard, to do a bit of a prep work for this game in particular.’ But hopefully I’m the better for it and I can improve my performance for Tonga,” he added, which would suggest he’ll have some involvement in next week’s game too.

“It’s going to be a much more difficult game, they’re obviously a different calibre of player. No disrespect to Romania, I thought they fronted up brilliantly and they were very physical but you know you see the team that Tonga have and we know their threat, they’ve had this weekend off and they’ll be just prepped for our game, they’ll have had two or three weeks to focus on our game, they’ve said that publicly.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us and we’re going to have to be ready, a World Cup is week on week and we’ve got to be ready every week.”

Sexton, who spent two years playing with Racing 92, had been taken aback by the extreme September heat and admitted: “Even in the warm-up I was talking to the lads and they just felt like they were burning. Thankfully we had a couple of water breaks and half-time to regroup.

“I thought we got better as the game went on, which was the most pleasing thing from a fitness point of view. The second half we found our flow a bit better, so it’s pleasing on that front.”

Indeed, the fitness levels of the players was particularly impressive, even among the thirtysomethings. While the bench added energy and oomph, there was Tadgh Beirne doing a length-of-the-pitch support run for his second and Ireland’s 12th try at the end of his 83-minute stint.

“I didn’t know what was happening! I was down on the sideline and was begging them to keep the ball in play,” said Farrell afterwards. “I thought at one stage Hugo [Keenan] was going to kick it off, and then Mack Hansen started playing like an under-12-year-old, which was great. “There was a [Jack Crowley] chip over the top, and I was thinking, ‘why did we chip that?’ and then Bundee got it back, but it was an outstanding way to finish the game, for the crowd more than anything.

“I think to get off to a good start is very important for us, because of the people not just who travelled today and are around Bordeaux having a great time, but for the Irish public in general.

“They told me that 60,000 Irish homes have registered with World Rugby for tickets. You do the maths, whether it’s two, three or four per household. The people coming from the UK, America, Europe ... wow, what a journey this is going to be.

“I’m more pleased for them, that hopefully they’ve enjoyed themselves, and that the people coming in the next few weeks will enjoy it a bit more. Hopefully the journey has just started, and it’s going to get a little bit better as well.”

But Farrell clearly approved of Ireland daringly playing from deep when they could have kicked the ball dead.

“They understand straight from the start with the way that they prepare, the ownership they had during the week,” said Farrell. “Points matter. We don’t know what different ramifications will happen in two, three or four weeks’ time. It’s important that we got off to a good start and rack up a few points, and that was the aim. To do that you have to stick to the process and I thought we did that pretty well and got our just rewards in the end.”

In the event of sides finishing level on match points, their final standings would be decided by the points difference in the head-to-head, after which, if still undecided, points difference in all pool matches would be decisive.

To Farrell’s relief, despite Ireland playing close to the line and often opting for tip-ons as they were being hit, his players emerged unscathed.

Robbie Henshaw had been withdrawn from the bench after pulling up in the captain’s run on Friday, but Farrell said: “No, he’s fine. He felt a little bit of something in his hamstring yesterday in the captain’s run, it wasn’t worth the risk at all. He’ll be fine.

“Everyone else came in pretty well, so a good day all round.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times