Rugby Union

Johnny Sexton: 'Part of me hated playing for Ireland – you felt like half the country was against you'

Johnny Sexton has admitted that part of him ‘hated’ playing for Ireland when his rivalry with Ronan O’Gara was at its most intense.

Sexton will fly out to Japan on Wednesday with the Irish team to take part in his third World Cup, but the showpiece tournament hasn’t produced great memories for the current World Rugby Player of the Year.

Ireland exited at the quarter-final stage in both 2011 and 2015, with Sexton not starting either game. He missed out through injury four years ago as Ireland were thumped by Argentina in Cardiff, while Declan Kidney opted to start Ronan O’Gara against Wales in 2011, with Sexton selected on the bench.

That period was dominated by Sexton vs O’Gara talk, with Kidney often changing his mind on who his first-choice out-half was.

Sexton got the nod for the crucial pool stage clash against Australia in New Zealand, where Ireland recorded a famous win, and speaking to Off The Ball on Newstalk, the number ten admitted that he felt huge pressure during the game with the shadow of O’Gara looming large.

“It was the highest pressure I’d ever felt for a kick, and I nailed it,” Sexton said of a penalty attempt as O’Gara was preparing to come in.

“I got another kick out towards the sideline, took it on, a great kick but it hits the post. I thought it was over the whole way.

“That’s sport, ROG came on, kicked a couple of good kicks and he retained his place for the Italian game and the quarters.”

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Sexton also admitted that he didn’t enjoy playing international rugby at the time, but admits now that it was a valuable learning experience.

“It was crazy, part of me hated playing for Ireland,” Sexton admitted.

“You feel like half of the country is against you and you are playing for Ireland and doing something you’ve dreamt of since you were a kid.

“You think that when you play for Ireland that you’ll have the full support of the country, but that was wishful thinking. There was a lot of criticism because ROG was such a great servant for Irish rugby. It made it difficult.”

“I learned so much from that campaign,” he added.

“I needed to be more focused on myself on that World Cup. I was always looking over my shoulder.

“Rather than thinking about myself and getting my own performance right, I was half looking at him, thinking about how he was playing.”

Sexton finds himself in a somewhat similar situation now, albeit he is now the veteran trying to keep Joey Carbery out of the team. The duo played alongside each other at Leinster before Carbery decided to move to Munster in the summer of 2018.

Sexton says that after living through the O’Gara rivalry, he is better equipped now to ensure he remains focused on his own performance.

“That’s what I have to learn from it,” Sexton said

“What I have to take now is really focusing on myself. Obviously if Joey keeps improving and the coach says, ‘we are going with Joey’, if I’ve given my all and focused on myself and he takes the number ten jersey, then I can live with myself.

“If I’m hellbent on looking at him every step of the way and wondering, he will take it [the ten jersey] sooner rather than later.

“I get on really well with Joey. We were team-mates at Leinster not so long ago. It was Stuart’s idea to have two guys that can play either side of the ruck and make our attack even better. I would have talked to him a lot about different things I wanted from him and how to get him into the game more.

“He was bouncing things off me when he was deciding whether to stay or go. A lot was made of that Munster game, it was just the fact that it was me and him. I texted him after the game.”

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