Ireland has work to do at the 2020 Six Nations Championship. The disappointment of the 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign and the 46-14 quarter-final defeat to New Zealand still lingers around the team. It was a campaign of unfulfilled hopes and potential – a squandered chance to shake off the poor World Cup performances of the past and create history. But a pool stage defeat to Japan, followed by that loss to the All Blacks, represented another missed opportunity for Ireland to showcase their qualities on the world stage.
The Six Nations brings a chance to vanquish that doom and gloom. There is a feeling of regeneration around the Ireland camp. It’s hoped that new head coach Andy Farrell will bring a breath of fresh air to a side that had stagnated somewhat in the 12 months leading up to the World Cup. This will be a welcome revitalisation for the senior players in the Irish squad, who had perhaps lost their way under Joe Schmidt.
Johnny Sexton is one of these players. The fly-half has been Ireland’s talisman over the last decade or so, running the show from the middle of the park, dictating play with his eye for a pass and inclination for inspired moments of magic. He made his debut over 10 years ago, in November 2009, and is closing in on a century of international appearances.
The Leinster man played a key role in each of Ireland’s three Six Nations titles in that time – in 2014, 2015 and 2018 – and was the embodiment of Ireland’s success under Schmidt in the six years the New Zealand man was in charge. There is a lot of responsibility on the fly-half in any international side, but Sexton always rose to the challenge.
While the World Cup did not see Sexton at his best, with injury playing its part, there is no doubting that he still has a vital role to play in the upcoming Six Nations tournament. With Farrell cutting his teeth as the main man in the Ireland camp, he’ll need his senior players to step up to the mark – the likes of Sexton, Conor Murray and Keith Earls.
These are players who have been there and done it as far as winning the Six Nations is concerned. With the latest Six Nations betting odds placing Ireland as second favourites behind England, they’ll need all the experience of those old heads to cause an upset.
This is where the influence of Sexton could play a part. He has the ability to inspire a spark out of nothing in every game, whether it’s a deft feint of movement or a lightning-quick offload. His place-kicking ability is well-known, but his in-play kicking has the potential to unlock any opposition’s defensive line, whether it’s a grubber kick down the line or a long, lofted cross-field lob. We saw glimpses of this at the World Cup, and those moments of magic are what’s needed to win the hard-fought battle that is a Six Nations campaign.
At 34, Sexton is not getting any younger and is approaching the autumn of his career. It seems like yesterday that he was the young pretender to the fly-half position in the latter days of legendary number 10 Ronan O’Gara. The last decade has flown by, and there have been many magical memories in Irish rugby for which Sexton is owed a lot of gratitude. The Leinster man will be hoping that there are a few more special occasions to savour before the curtain closes on his outstanding international career.