After three games in the 2020 Six Nations Championship, Ireland’s Johnny Sexton has experienced all the peaks and troughs that captaining an international rugby side casts in one’s direction. In the cauldron of the Aviva Stadium, where those high rising stands loom large and the sun-reflecting glassy roof undulates and disappears into the tightly packed Lansdowne homes nearby, Sexton must have felt awash in a complicated emotional cocktail of pride and nerves.
It was the opening game, and a high-pressure fixture against Scotland, a side left reeling from a disappointing Rugby World Cup campaign in which Ireland got the better of them in the pool stage. On paper, it was seen as a likely Ireland victory, the perfect game for new captain Sexton, and new head coach Andy Farrell, to properly sink their teeth into the unique challenges of international leadership. Victory was seen as the bare minimum, with Ireland favourites in the Six Nations Championship betting odds. Defeat would have heralded the end times, and the credentials of both captain and coach would have been questioned.
But amid the deafening roar of the crowd, Sexton rose to the occasion like the best always seem to do. A sparklingindividual performance from Ireland’s number 10, in a match where the team as a whole failed to click, was proof that Sexton was relishing this new challenge. He set the tone with an early try, and went on to score all of Ireland’s points in a 19-12 victory. It was job done, onto the next one.
That came in the form of Wales a week later, Wayne Pivac’sside having taken Italy to the cleaners in their opening match. But Ireland summoned a performance that would have left coach Farrell brimming with pride. After Sexton’s solo exploits in the Scotland game, the rest of the team stepped up and made their presence felt, as four different try scorers gave Ireland a comfortable 24-14 victory. All the captain had to do was garnish the scoreline with a couple of conversions.
‘What’s all the fuss about?’ Sexton must have thought, ‘this captaincy business is easy’. But the Leinster man and his Ireland teammates would soon be brought down to earth. Two weeks on from the Wales win, the team had the chance to seal the Triple Crown at Twickenham against England, but on a grey day in west London, Ireland wilted like early spring daffodils, as Eddie Jones’ side found the form that led them to the Rugby World Cup Final just months earlier.
After a hero’s performance against Scotland, Sexton was the villain of the piece as Ireland slumped to a 24-12 defeat. He misread the roll of the ball to allow George Ford to steal in and give England an early lead. It was also a kicking display to forget, as Sexton failed to find the target with any of his attempts. And these were not near misses, these were horrible sliced shanks, as if all of a sudden Sexton’s renowned kicking ability had deserted him and drifted away on the west London wind. Such was the fly-half’s lack of belief, he handed kicking responsibilities to replacement scrum-half John Cooney to convert Andrew Porter’s last-minute consolation try.
From the heights of that inspiring performance against Scotland to the miserable lows of Twickenham, Sexton has experienced all the good and bad that comes with being the figurehead for your country. With two games to go, Ireland are not entirely out of the hunt for the Six Nations title. If they are going to spring a surprise and get their hands on the trophy, they’ll need their captain hitting those sweet notes he found in the Scotland game, and less of the rabbit-in-the-headlights nature of his performance at Twickenham.