Subscriber OnlyRugby World CupPlayer watch: Johnny Sexton

A competitor until the bitter end, Johnny Sexton bows out desperate to bend the game to his will

Ireland captain departs professional rugby amid a flurry of emotion and gratitude

Johnny Sexton attracts the cameras like a matinee idol, invariably box office as a player and as a person, whether happy, sad, smiling, tearful or incandescent, his face a ticker tape of emotions before, during and after Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand at the Stade de France.

There were moments of poignancy, his son Luca trying to mitigate the disappointment by telling his dad that he was still the best. Sexton acknowledged the sentiment by absent-mindedly tousling his son’s hair, while trying to wrangle his feelings, as the Ireland squad circumnavigated the pitch to acknowledge the phenomenal Irish supporters.

It book-ended his experiences on this particular Parisian night as earlier, 8.03pm, local time, he was the first Irish player out to the warm-up in his last game as a professional rugby player, cap number 118 after which he would have posted 1,108 points in a green jersey. His words later in the evening that “you have to work hard for fairytale endings” are true but don’t convey the full picture.

But it’s not just about graft. As Ireland found, luck usually grabs a ticket in the outcome lottery, something that Andy Farrell’s side would be made achingly aware of; a couple of cross-kicks that eluded Irish hands and a brilliant defensive read and play from Jordie Barrett enabled New Zealand to ultimately cash-in.


Hours before, entering the arena, Sexton jogged down the touchline, pausing occasionally to applaud the ovation he received from the Irish fans, continued his journey along the dead-ball line before completing the rectangle by indulging in a passing drill along the 22-metre line with backs coach Mike Catt.

For a little over the next 20-minutes he is immersed in a placekicking routine, variation provided by changing distance and angle. At one point he fielded a high ball and with an elegant sweep of his right foot dropped a goal from 45-metres, right over the black spot. The regimen of the warm-up finished with a couple of team drills, Sexton in trademark fashion firing up the Irish backline.

He led the team off and then back on, providing an inadvertent comedy moment. Distracted by something behind him, he briefly turned but as he spun around again, he collided with a television cameraman who had stepped in for a close-up. Sexton offered a withering stare in response.

Ireland’s malaise early on stemmed from indiscipline, a touch of inaccuracy in terms of misplaced passes, compounded by being caught without a sweeper, a fact that Beauden Barrett exploited beautifully with a chip kick, the preamble to a try for Leicester Fainga’anuku. When the smoke dispersed following New Zealand’s scoring salvo, Ireland were 13 points adrift on the scoreboard.

Sexton turned down the opportunity to take on the posts to go for the corner, coming up short on a couple of occasions before Jamison-Gibson Park’s smartly taken try yielded a reward for the risk. In those moments the only currency that matters is the outcome, not the reasoning behind the decision to ignore the uprights, no matter how logical.

What’s less evident and tangible at the time is how much the energy is dissipated on the black-clad breakers. The immediate adrenaline shot can be seen in the body language of the defending players.

If you look at the net result, Ireland turned down nine points potentially, and accumulated seven instead: in a 17-Test match unbeaten run, Sexton has faced these choices on many occasions, so it would be churlish to dwell on this instance other than refer to the in-match evidence.

At half-time Ireland trailed by a point (18-17), on 64 minutes Andy Farrell’s side were again behind by the minimum (25-24). Jordie Barrett kicked a penalty, the Irish captain didn’t as the game entered the final 10-minutes plus change.

In trying to find an analogy, it was tempting to view Ireland as a person who falls into a hole, climbs out, falls back in, and whose fingertips are visible again only to lose purchase at the last moment.

Sexton passed the ball on 73 occasions, Richie Mo’unga 21 times, Sexton kicked four times from hand, Mo’unga eight, those numbers a story of a differing approach. New Zealand tightened the game plan, narrower in orientation, variety offered in the kicking stakes rather than the razzle dazzle of the last three pool matches.

The All Blacks presented a more persuasive picture to referee Wayne Barnes at the breakdown and in the setpiece and for the most part were ruthless in execution, worthy winners on the day not least for that final 37-phase defensive defiance. Ireland went 60-metres, won 36 rucks, not bad for a “cut-and-paste” attack, a jibe delivered by New Zealand coach Ian Foster in the aftermath.

Ireland were running on fumes, so too their 38-year-old captain. Who knows what Jack Crowley might have brought but Farrell entrusted the endgame to Sexton, who had delivered brilliantly for his country so many times in the past.

There was one last flicker of the passionate, arch-competitor. He ignored the final whistle to give Rieko Ioane a mouthful after the New Zealand centre had walked towards the touchline, cupped his ear and made a shushing motion to the Irish supporters.

The lament afterwards on a green field in France was without a scintilla of self-pity. Sexton’s disappointment was on behalf of others, for Keith Earls, for his teammates, for Farell and the coaching group, for the supporters.

He fought the good fight, right to the end as he did throughout a remarkable career, in which he excelled in the highest strata of the sport. He couldn’t bend the final game to his will as he has done so often in the past. He tried, as he always did, and lost nothing for the regard in which he is held in doing so.