Adam Hathaway reports on what just might be the greatest moment in Johnny Sexton’s career, but probably isn’t, and thinks the European tournaments should heed Brian O’Driscoll’s advice.
Johnny Sexton smashed a drop goal over at the Stade de France last February and that proved what a class fly-half he is. End of the game, everything on the line, his balls on the line and the Irish stand-off bangs it over.
Ireland won that game, 15-13, with the move that led to Sexton’s drop goal, a much neglected weapon in modern rugby but we have been down that road before, lasting 40 phases.
Cue delirium and it was the precursor to Ireland’s Six Nations grand slam and a precursor to Irish rugby’s dominance of the game in 2018. And it was a precursor to Sexton joining us for dinner.
Back in the day England had their Jonny who scored a famous drop goal once and Ireland have their Johnny now.
The delirium was not quite the same when Sexton managed to make the effort to attend the Rugby Writers’ dinner in central London last Monday to pick up the Pat Marshall Trophy, named after the former Daily Express correspondent, which the club award to their personality of the year.
But it was pretty close even amongst hard-bitten hacks who have seen most of the things that rugby can produce. To a man and a women they were impressed that Sexton, who was also crowned World Rugby Player of the Year in November, was sufficiently proud to come to the dinner.
Our award has been going longer than World Rugby’s gong, although their bash is in glitzy Monaco and we drink pints at our annual do, so we hope it gets pride of place on the Sexton mantelpiece.
The trophy is given after a vote by the membership and the top five in the poll were Sexton, the re-invented in Dublin Stuart Lancaster, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and Tadhg Furlong who will probably win it sometime in the not too distant future.
You might notice there was a bit of an emerald green hue to the shortlist but no wonder after the year they have had with club and country. But this is not dished out after clandestine meetings, it is an open vote to all the members of the club, formed in 1960, and most of them know a bit about the game.
And Sexton was there to collect our old trophy which was first awarded to the former Wales No.8 Mervyn Davies in 1976 and has seen the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson, Dan Carter and Bill Beaumont have it on their sideboard. Only Johnson has won it more than once.
Sexton didn’t have to make the effort and it proved how classy he is. He has been at the heart of Ireland and Leinster’s successes. Pro14, tick, Champions Cup, tick, Six Nations with a Grand Slam tick, series win in Australia, tick and a win over New Zealand, tick. He is going to have to build another trophy cabinet but a few of the Irish lads have a similar problem.
Most of those awards were on display at the dinner, the Triple Crown nearly didn’t make it back to the Six Nations organisers – another story that one – but Sexton was familiar with them already.
Sexton is 33 and has 84 caps for Ireland and the British & Irish Lions and you would not bet against him ticking off a few more things this year. He will be a busy man even if he was recuperating from injury when he came to see us – but is due to be back pretty shortly and that could spell bad news for England in a fortnight’s time.
He is so important to Ireland that Eddie Jones took time out in his briefing last Thursday to say Sexton was such a big dog player that referees took notice of him. Jones had England’s Six Nations meeting with Ireland on 2 February and couldn’t resist getting the first word in – whether he has the last one is another matter when the dust settles at the Aviva Stadium.
“He is a reasonably big player and has got the Bat Phone to the referee,” Jones told us at Twickenham after announcing a training squad.”
“He is the only one allowed to pick up the red phone to talk to the referee so that gives you an advantage and we have got to be good enough to counter that. When he talks the referee listens and that is because of his status in the game and you earn that, Richie McCaw was the same, and it gives you an advantage and you have got to be good enough to counter that.”
We think Jones was being complimentary bracketing Sexton with the great McCaw, and definitely trying to get in the ear of the referee early, but you never can tell with him. One thing is for sure Jones and his team of analysts won’t be ignoring the Irish 10 in the build-up. There will be more to come from the England head coach for sure.
But a relaxed Sexton and his wife, Laura, took the time, and trouble, to fly from Dublin on Monday, returning home on Tuesday after the annual night of frivolity, tall tales and even taller bar bills. The couple have received praise from other quarters since the dinner for coming over, notably from our colleague Alex Lowe of The Times but we are not going to apologise for doing it again.
And good on the pair of them – it is not like the old days when scores of players would turn up at the dinner, they are professionals now so sightings of current stars are not as common as they used to be.
The dinner which was attended by about 450 of rugby’s great and good and not so great and good, is usually a riot and was the same again this year.
Sexton was quizzed on stage by Alastair Eykyn of BT Sport fame for about 15 minutes and even managed to crack a joke at expense of Warren Gatland who was also in the room.
Sexton’s appearance, after a night on the chairman’s table, was a fitting end to a great evening which also saw some other heroes and heroines acknowledged.
Danielle Waterman, the former England full-back got a tankard as did former Cambridge University coach Tony Rodgers, England’s 2003 scrum guru Phil Keith-Roach and Paul Tupai who was still turning out for Bedford at 43 and played about a million games. Tupai looks like he could still do a job in the Premiership let alone the Championship.
Gary Forge of Fuller’s, who has supplied beer to lubricate the evening for two decades, was similarly honoured but Sexton was the main attraction.
We saluted him last week in London and we salute him again now. Thanks for coming Johnny.
Sunday saw the pool stages of the Champions Cup wrapped up and RugbySpy freezed our backsides off as Saracens saw off Glasgow 38-19 on Saturday and holders Leinster beat Wasps 37-19 on Sunday.
Chuck in the result in France on Sunday where Toulouse beat Bath 20-17, get the abacus out and it all added up to the quarter-final fixtures which will be played on the weekend of 29 March to 31 and it came out like this.
That weekend in March might be significant if you are planning to travel to an away fixture and have been following the Brexit saga but we will park that bit for now.
Saracens will play Glasgow who they had in their pool, Edinburgh host Munster, Leinster open their doors to Ulster and Racing 92 stage an all-French game against Toulouse. Saracens were in the same pool as Glasgow but we reckon the organisers got lucky.
At one stage at the Ricoh Arena on Sunday frustrated hacks were trying to work out the permutations for the last eight. It looked like Toulouse could have ended up at Leinster who they played in the pool which is not a great look.
In the Challenge Cup, Northampton will go to Clermont, who they played in their pool, La Rochelle are up against Bristol, ditto, and Sale are hosting Connacht, ditto. The only teams who have not played each in the pools are Worcester and Harlequins who are in the last quarter. These duplications are not great but Brian O’Driscoll cracked it on the dreaded social media.
The former Irish centre reckons the one to eight seedings for the quarter-finals should be retained but the one plays eight, two plays seven etc system should get binned.
Instead he put forward the idea of the top four getting a home draw and the rest being drawn out of the bag, bringing back teary memories of the old FA Cup draw and velvet bags and reducing the chances of teams from the same pool playing three times in seven rounds of rugby.
After that, sides who met in the group stages should be able to meet.
Teams should get credit for performing well in the pool stages and the top four do. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
We reckon O’Driscoll is onto something.