If Ireland suffer defeat when they host England on Saturday, they will record their first blank against Triple Crown opponents in 29 years, but such are the margins of the Six Nations, they could easily have been going for the championship this Saturday evening.
Had inside centre Robbie Henshaw not charged into the unchartered territory that is the maul, Ireland may have beaten Wales a week ago. “It is amazing the difference,” says the Ireland fly-half, Jonathan Sexton. “We get that pushover try. We were going to score that try whether Robbie does what he does or doesn’t. If we do that and I hold the conversion, it could be a very different story. We could be going for a championship and, all of a sudden, we’re really good.”
Sexton is clearly frustrated. Forced off twice during the 22-9 defeat by Wales – once for a head injury assessment and another for a trip to the sin-bin – saw the Irish game plan unravel without its commander-in-chief, although the stand-off has no qualms about the yellow card. “Technically, yeah, it is a yellow card by me,” he adds, though stresses the Welsh were doing a good job of trapping him in the ruck in the process.
But had Henshaw not fell afoul of referee Wayne Barnes, and had Rory Best’s try been awarded and converted by Sexton, then Ireland would’ve been leading into the closing stages and, perhaps, challenging England for the Six Nations title in Dublin this weekend. Instead, England clinched the title with a match to spare, and Ireland are now playing the part of pantomime villain, eager to stop their rivals from claiming the Grand Slam.
Should they do so, Ireland will also halt a world record winning run for the second time in five months. But rather than claim that Ireland, on their day, can be better than England and co-record holders New Zealand, Sexton instead expresses a desire to match the incredible levels that the two sides have reached over the last 18 months.
“They have equalled the All Blacks unbeaten record,” Sexton said of England. “That speaks for itself. This team has been together for six years now. They are going for back-to-back Grand Slams
“They have been through ups and downs and they are reaping the rewards of that from last season’s Grand Slam all the way through to now.
“I think we can say we can beat these teams. But, we haven’t come near to 18 wins in a row. That’s what we need to aspire to be like. We can worry about that after Saturday.
“We’re playing against the second best team in the world and some would argue they could be the best. They haven’t played the All Blacks yet. We’re going to have to be at our best. I said we were going to have to be at our best against Wales because Wales had England pretty much beaten.”
But Sexton does see chinks in the armour, given how close England were pushed by both France and Wales. He glosses over the fact that the put 61 points past Scotland last weekend, but as impressive as the performance was, Ireland won’t be expecting the same to happen to them this weekend.
Instead, the Irish faithful, hopeful of a St Patrick’s Day party, are expecting an ultra-physical battle that will see the likes of Sean O’Brien and Henshaw trying to knock the English senseless – legally, of course. But, as images of Sexton will show you in the moments after the Wales defeat, the fly-half has also had to get through his fair share of defensive duties, and this season that has taken its toll on his body. He went into the start of Leinster’s season undercooked, needed time out before Christmas in order to get his body right, and just when things looked on course, he suffered a calf injury in January and aggravated it on the eve of the Six Nations to force him into missing the first two matches against Scotland and Italy. Suddenly, a nation holds its breathe every time Sexton hits the deck.
“I said it after the French game - that was really frustrating, the calf,” Sexton said. “The first was the shoulder and there was nothing I could have done about that at the end of last season . But probably because I was trying to get back quickly from that, and start the season well, and sometimes you neglect other parts of your rehab that you should’ve been concentrating on.
“So we took a block out of the season just before Christmas and worked really hard, trying to get my body in a really good place and felt it was really getting in good form, and then I got a knock against Montpellier and I put myself under pressure to play because I needed to get another game in before the Six Nations because it is a step up. I stupidly played with that niggle and that compounded it. That could have been avoided and so was really frustrating, I missed two games at the start of it that would have given me momentum into the Championship.
“[It’s a] Big regret, but look I feel like I’m in a good place, and time will tell. It just was a frustrating period and it was a strange period as well because from the start of the season when I came back from the shoulder, I probably done every single pitch session. It wasn’t like I was carrying myself, it was just a little niggle, and then another little niggle, and I was asking myself why, and got to the bottom of the problem with think , and that’s probably the positives that can come out of it.”
See off England this Saturday though, and Sexton will happily put his body on the line if it means stopping the English. “Is it a bad thing to say? It’s obvious that we want to beat them!”