He may be on the verge of his last Six Nations Championship, he may be months away from his final World Cup, but one thing and only one thing is dominating Johnny Sexton’s thoughts right now, and that’s a victory in Wales this weekend.
Warren Gatland’s Wales and Andy Farrell’s Ireland will open the Six Nations with a bang in Cardiff early on Saturday afternoon when the visitors will look to justify their status as title favorites and lay down a marker ahead of the World Cup in France in the autumn.
Our first line up of 2023! 🟢#TeamOfUs | #GuinnessSixNations— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 2, 2023
For Sexton, now 37 years of age, this could be his swan song as he chases a fourth Six Nations winners medal and a first for his team since 2018, and he is clearly as hungry as ever judging by his comments to the Irish media this week.
“The older you get as well, the more selfish you are,” said Sexton, fit to play on Saturday after recent surgery on a facial wound. “You want to make the most of every opportunity and it’s such a special tournament. It’s so hard to win. You talk about how many titles Ireland have won in the last 20 or 30 years, there’s not too many.
“It’s a special thing that you can achieve something in the tournament and not talking about the World Cup at all. We won’t even be talking about France, we’ll be talking only about Wales and how we can get ourselves in the best shape possible. But 100 percent we’ll be doing all we can to win this tournament.”
Having failed to make a mark with a third-place finish in the Six Nations back in the last World Cup year of 2019, when they then flopped in Japan, Sexton admits the two competitions are linked at the hip when it comes to performance and end product.
He added, “I think it’s important, if you talk about 2019, to keep the momentum going, to prove that we can do something in the World Cup. We need to go and do something in the Six Nations as well.
“We just need to realize why that happened in 2019 and take some of the experiences. It’s a very different group, but it’s important that we keep our standards high. We had some good results in November but the performances probably weren’t as high as in the summer.
“We need to delve deeper and even if we’re winning we need to keep learning lessons. That’s certainly what we’ve always done, and will continue to do. But we need to keep the momentum going. It’s a very different group of players so we can’t think too much about four years ago.”
Ireland coach Farrell will also preach reality ahead of the opening game of the Championship season against a Welsh team with former Irish boss Gatland back at the helm.
“We will be honest enough with ourselves to see where we are at,” said Farrell, whose side beat Australia, Fiji and South Africa in November. “I know that we could have all the ambition in the world to finish number one, but in reality, we could still improve as a team and finish number two, etc.
“But the lads are desperate to be successful and win. That’s the next thing that’s in front of us and how people perform. How we deal with that as a group will grow us to be able to pick the right squad for the World Cup. We know the type of characters, whether they are growing or not with the rest of the season, and then we roll into pre-season.
“We finally get to have the players for a full summer and hopefully make some big improvements before the World Cup starts. We lost our way in certain games in November but the good thing about it is we found a way to get back and win, so getting back in sync a little bit with our attack, showing some good ambition and playing the game that’s in front of us is always going to be key.
“We know where we need to go and where we’re concentrating ourselves before the Wales game. But having said that, one area that we have been working really hard on is the mental side of our game and keeping our composure nice and calm, especially when things aren’t going our way.
“There were tough battles in the autumn, especially the South Africa and Australia games but we did find a way, which is a skill in itself.”
Farrell has called uncapped Ulster hooker Tom Stewart into his squad after Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher has picked up a hamstring injury that has left him doubtful for Saturday’s game in Wales.
Tadhg Furlong, who will take part in his eighth Six Nations, couldn’t be more excited to get going.
“You come through Christmas, January and then the Six Nations is looming,” he said. “I’m itching, I can’t wait. I think it’s a class tournament. It’s a big deal.”