JONNY SEXTON HAS a bright orange notepad.
Having arrived to speak to the media at Carton House immediately after an analysis session on France’s individual talents, the piece of stationery is close by the Ireland out-half’s side as he speaks about the challenge that awaits in Paris on Saturday.
Notes on the likes of Brice Dulin and Jules Plisson are sure to be scrawled on the pages of the precious logbook, but the fact that Ireland began to examine France two weeks ago means that behind the eye-catching facade, there are also details of how Joe Schmidt believes his side can win at the Stade de France.
This journal of Sexton’s is important not only because it holds hints as to how he will attempt to guide his team through the decisive Six Nations clash, but also because it is illustrative of how Ireland find themselves in the position they are in.
Nothing in rugby builds trust between a group of players and a coach like the latter providing the former with a game plan that works to a tee. If a coach can tell his players that X, Y and Z are going to result in success and that becomes reality, trust will follow.
Ireland’s win over Wales provides the most striking example of that happening under Schmidt’s rule, but there were elements of it in several of their other fixtures this season too. The latest demonstration came against Italy last weekend, as Sexton details.
“The tactics that we had were to go hard from the start and you saw the rewards in the last half hour of the game. We made them make a lot of tackles; I think they broke some sort of record in the Six Nations for the amount of tackles that they made [Italy were forced into 245 tackles in total].
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“The tactics were spot on, to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, to play at a pace that put us under a lot of pressure, but maybe put them under even more pressure. We got it spot on and we saw the rewards of it.”
Schmidt’s first true achievement as Ireland coach beckons his weekend; figuring out the way to achieve what virtually all of his predecessors failed to holds the key.
Ireland’s history of winning in France needs not be brought up again here, but what is different this time around? Why can this team do what so many other Irish sides have failed to do?
After a lengthy pause to reflect on that exact question, Sexton states his belief that Ireland have a Kiwi ace up their sleeves on this occasion.
I think we’ve got the best coach around. I think we’re going to go in with a game plan that everyone trusts.
“We don’t get too bogged down in ‘We haven’t won there for this long, we haven’t done this or that’. We’ll be very much focused on how we’ll beat them with our attacking moves and with the defence we use on the day.”
Sexton is happy for everyone outside the squad to talk about records and previous failures, but underlines that Ireland will not be dwelling on such notions. He refers to Saturday as a ‘cup final’ for both teams and his only dip into the past will be to recall how to win in these situations.
“Sometimes when you go into finals, you get so worried about the result that you lose track of what got you there in the first place. It will be very much performance-driven.
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“From having worked with all the coaches here before, especially with Joe, having played European finals and Rabo finals, it’ll be very much focused on the performance. Even though it’s winner-takes-all, it’ll be very much the same as usual.”
The Racing Métro playmaker admits that Ireland are aware that “one massive thing missing from most of the guys’ CVs” is an international trophy. Filling that gap is obviously the goal this weekend, but Sexton stresses they are focused on the ‘how’, not the ‘what’.
History says a defeat is forthcoming, but has an Irish team ever traveled to Paris with such an intense focus on the process, such trust in their game plan? It’s all to play for on Saturday, and Sexton wouldn’t have it any other way.
“[The record] just shows how difficult it is to go and win there; that’s all it shows us. It means if we go and win, we’ll have earned it and it’ll be something to remember. We’ve a chance to go and make history now.”