Analysis: Sexton seeking cure for Ireland’s frustration

A bonus-point victory in Rome but frustration was the watchword coming out of the Ireland camp in the aftermath – most notably from Johnny Sexton.

A bonus-point victory in Rome but frustration was the watchword coming out of the Ireland camp in the aftermath – most notably from Johnny Sexton.

Winning any away game in the Guinness Six Nations is an achievement, so it shows just how high Ireland’s standards are that a 26-16 victory in Italy – earning a maximum five points in the process – wasn’t greeted by universal positivity from those involved.

A Grand Slam followed by a clean sweep in the Autumn Internationals, with a series victory in Australia sandwiched in between, meant 2018 was almost a perfect year for Joe Schmidt’s men but 2019 has already been tougher sledding.

A Round One loss to England in Dublin was followed by victories over Scotland and Italy, and their star fly-half – and the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year – is demanding more.

Sexton could be seen muttering to himself during the game as Ireland had to overcome a 16-12 deficit in the second half against the Azzurri, before kicking out with irritation when he was replaced late on.

“I’m unbelievably frustrated,” Sexton explained to Irish host broadcaster Virgin Media One. “How can you not be when you’re doing as good a preparation as you were doing last year, you’re training as well you were doing last year, you’re doing everything right and things just aren’t clicking.

“Nobody cares more than us. That’s the bottom line. I’m sorry if I let my frustrations boil over at times but that’s just part of me.

“I care a lot about the team and wanting to do well. People are going to say you shouldn’t act frustrated when you’re coming off.

“But I wasn’t frustrated about coming off, I was frustrated because things didn’t go well for us again.

“I could come out with three or four excuses but we just have to say that we haven’t been good enough yet.

“We’ve shown glimpse in games of how good we can be and then we’ve just…we haven’t.”

You could make the argument that Ireland are being too tough on themselves – they’re right in the hunt for a fourth Championship title in six years and the positive signs are there for all to see.

As the game wore on in Rome, scrum-half Conor Murray looked to be getting back to his best – putting up contestable box-kicks, making a half-break before offloading to Tadhg Furlong, stepping in for Sexton from the kicking tee and then breaking off the back of a lineout maul and powering through a couple of tackles to touch down his 14th try for Ireland.

However, the greatest teams are so successful precisely because they’re so hard on themselves, always striving to be better and never resting on their laurels.

Ireland will be desperate to kick on and get ready for the visit of a resurgent France team in Round Four but as Schmidt said after the Azzurri game, maybe it’s time for a quiet moment of reflection.

“Sometimes, it’s just about taking a step back,” mused the coach. “We always talk about going forward.

“Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and take a deep breath and not panic because I think the players were a bit…I suppose a bit broken by the fallout from the England game, and then suddenly they start to question themselves.

“I think the coaching staff; it’s our job to re-energise the group and reignite the confidence.”

If the sign of champions is winning when not at your best, then Ireland’s victories over Scotland and Italy speak volumes.

After the near-unmitigated success of 2018, it was also instructive to see how Ireland would respond to the adversity of defeat against England.

It might not have been quite their greatest vintage but responding with two wins to keep their hopes of lifting back-to-back Championship titles alive certainly qualifies as passing that particular test of character.

A French side suddenly bouncing with confidence off the back of three fearless young backs – Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos – changing the whole narrative surrounding Les Bleus will provide another next weekend.

That could lead to a Guinness Six Nations title showdown in Cardiff in Round Five in Schmidt’s final Championship match, although England will still have plenty of say in the destination of the crown.

For now, there is frustration emanating from Dublin but things change quickly in rugby and you would be a brave person to back against Ireland writing a happy ending to their 2019 Guinness Six Nations story.