‘It’s been working in training for three years, so it’s good it came off’

Updated at 20.12

IT WAS A strike move Joe Schmidt’s Ireland had kept in cold storage for three years, constantly working on fine-tuning the moving parts on the training paddock, before executing it to perfection against France on Sunday. 

The platform laid by Peter O’Mahony and forwards off a well-controlled lineout maul, Conor Murray identified it was on, firing a pass off his left to Johnny Sexton in between the dummy runs of Bundee Aki and Jacob Stockdale. The out-half was — as he so often is — the fulcrum of the wraparound play.

Sexton celebrates his try against France. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Garry Ringrose’s transfer — both in accuracy and timing — was perfect and with Jordan Larmour running an excellent decoy line to attract Yoann Huget, Sexton was able to collect, straighten and dart untouched to the line for just his 10th Ireland try, and first since Canada in the 2015 World Cup. 

It ended a run of 30 Test matches, both for Ireland and the Lions, without a try for the 33-year-old, who clearly enjoyed the moment as he embraced his team-mates under the posts, before converting his own score.

“Yeah, it is a move we’ve had in the bag for ages,” he says. “Against Italy, we should have played it but we took the wrong option.

“We’ve had it for a while and it’s the first time it’s come out; it’s been working in training for three years, so it’s good that those come off.

“It’s something we always have, these good moves, I don’t think Wales are going to give us too many opportunities with lineouts this weekend and they’ll probably kick long and chase hard. Hopefully, we’ll have a plan for that as well.”

Getting his name on the score-sheet was an added bonus for the World Player of the Year after a barren run. 

“It’s not something I’ve thought about really, my brother texted me afterwards and told me that,” he laughed.

“Honestly, it didn’t come into my mind. It’s not like I’m a winger… I’m not too obsessed with scoring tries, my job is to try and make the team score tries.

Decisive, influential and pulling the strings, Sexton was back to something near his best against Les Bleus in round four after so much had been made of his performances, and body language, during a frustrating start to the championship for Schmidt’s side.

It was no coincidence that Ireland conjured a much-improved showing at the Aviva Stadium when Sexton, and indeed Conor Murray, returned to match-shaping form in the pivot, even if he was pulled ashore for the final 20 minutes to give Connacht’s Jack Carty some valuable game-time in green. 

Sexton was in good form speaking to the media today. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Ireland’s off-colour performances against England, Scotland and Italy will have frustrated nobody more than Sexton, his competitive personality and unflinching desire for betterment and success no doubt leading to a great deal of annoyance.

But, even then, the Leinster captain always maintained that Ireland were not far off clicking and on the back of Sunday’s bonus-point victory, was clearly pleased the team were able to ‘turn a corner performance-wise’.

“Honestly, there was nothing majorly broken in the first few games,” he said. 

“There was just some uncharacteristic errors from some individuals and some break downs in just a couple of things. That just adds up and if everyone makes a couple of mistakes then suddenly you have 30 errors and you are in a bit of trouble.

“We speak about the margins. Take me for example, you want to kick it 10 metres from the restart and if you kick it nine-and-a-half there is an error but are not too far off kicking a good one.

“Kick it out on the full by half-a-yard and you’re only half-a-yard from getting it right and you’re not too far away from getting it right and that proved to be the case.”

The out-half continued: “The first 40 [against France] was excellent, we did everything that we wanted to do. We had great intent despite the greasy ball early in the game. Very pleasing and it was good to sort of turn the corner, performance-wise.

There are still parts of the game that we want to improve on, and that we will need to improve on, this weekend for what will be our biggest challenge to date and it’s one we are looking forward to.

After a recovery day on Monday, Ireland’s preparations for Cardiff moved up a gear today but the six-day turnaround from France means Tuesday’s schedule — normally the first proper hit-out of the week — included a gym and pool session before a light run-out on the training pitch. 

The out-half pictured at Carton House. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

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There was a palpable change in atmosphere around Carton House earlier as Ireland, having put to bed the negative vibes of the first three weekends, head into the final round of championship action with renewed confidence and belief.

Sexton, laid back and relaxed, says they are motivated to end Wales’ 13-game unbeaten run as Warren Gatland’s side bid for Grand Slam glory, having previously brought England and New Zealand crashing back down to earth after long winning streaks.

“I know from talking to some of the Welsh lads from previous tours that the expectation in Wales is huge all the time and it will be at its highest this week to get a Grand Slam. They don’t come around too often,” he said.

“I don’t know if Wales feel like they’re invincible, they’re saying that they’ve forgotten how to lose and all of that. They’ve eked out some results, we’ve played well against teams that have gone on runs before — New Zealand, England, stopping their runs.

“Again, we’ll give them the respect that they absolutely deserve. We’ll analyse them, we’ll talk about where we can get at them, where we think they are very strong and we’ll come up with a plan.

“I don’t think we’ll talk too much about the psychology of them. They’ll be under pressure but so will we. We want to finish on a high and win a championship. We still have a shout and we know that if we get a performance then the pressure is on England and then you never know what might happen.”

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