Having to win the RBS 6 Nations title in front of almost 79,000 spectators at the Stade de France made Ireland’s Championship success ‘a little bit more special’ according to out-half Jonathan Sexton.
Results in Paris have been particularly hard to come by for Ireland teams over the years. Prior to Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick heroics in 2000, you have to go back to 1972 when Tom Kiernan captained Ireland to a 14-9 win in Colombes.
Barry McGann was the Irish out-half back then and another special talent, Jonathan Sexton, has possession of the number 10 jersey these days.
Sexton’s 43rd Ireland cap ended prematurely after he sustained a head injury when attempting to tackle bruising French centre Mathieu Bastareaud in the final quarter.
The Dubliner was stretchered off in the 69th minute as Ireland clung on desperately to a 22-20 lead. Thankfully, Joe Schmidt’s men held on to be crowned champions and Sexton managed to collect his winners’ medal and join his team-mates in the celebrations on the pitch.
In an interview with RTÉ 2fm’s ‘Game On’ last night, he said: “I’m a lot better now. I didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it with the lads on Saturday night in Paris. I spent a bit of time with the doctor.
“I didn’t feel as bad as I thought as I was going to and I got to enjoy it a bit yesterday (Sunday) with the guys and had a bit of a celebration with my family and close friends and it was quite enjoyable.
“I remember everything right up to the hit and I just remember being in the doctor’s room then. I remember speaking to the doctor on the pitch and being back in so I didn’t have much memory loss.
“It wasn’t really a bad one, it just came at a bad time against a pretty big fella (Bastareaud). It probably looked worse than it was, it probably gave my family a bit of a scare and my wife in the crowd. It was less pleasant for them.”
Although he was visibly frustrated to miss two place-kicks on the night, Sexton more than delivered for Ireland as he ran in two tries against the French and finished with a 17-point tally.
Retiring centre O’Driscoll was the only surviving member of the Ireland side that won in Paris 14 years ago, so this new-look squad were making their own history on Saturday night.
“The fact that we had to go to Paris and win made it that little bit more special, because not a lot of Irish teams have done that in the past,” agreed Sexton.
“It wasn’t extra special for me (that it was in Paris, my current home city). I think it was just for an Irish team to go to Paris to win, and especially with the pressure of wanting to send Brian (O’Driscoll) off on the right note – that would have played on the players’ minds during the week.
“It was a big pressurised week, to go over there with the French backs against the wall – that’s when they’re at their most dangerous and sometimes at their best.
“We were aware of all these things, they all contributed to making it a really special day.”
The Racing Metro player was confident that Ireland could go on and win the Championship despite falling to a narrow 13-10 defeat away to England.
“I think, as players, you win your first game and immediately you start to think right, if you win your next one you could be on for a Grand Slam, or going to Twickenham searching for a Triple Crown.
“Obviously the England game was a massive setback because both of those – the Grand Slam and Triple Crown – were gone in the one day.
“We only had a Championship to play for and we were in a pretty good position to go and do that, and all our focus switched to that then.
“The way the fixtures list worked, to go and win a Championship, playing both England and France away, was a good achievement.”
Like Ireland captain Paul O’Connell, Sexton is a very driven individual and he admits to being envious of O’Connell and company’s achievement of winning the Grand Slam back in 2009.
Completing a clean sweep of Six Nations wins is something Sexton is determined to achieve in his career and with the current squad growing under Schmidt and more players to come back from injury, Ireland’s immediate future looks bright.
“With the standards that the teams have set before us, I think we would have liked to achieve a Grand Slam. You always want more,” admitted Sexton.
“Even though we’re so happy with the Championship, we probably do have regrets over the England game as I’m sure they do with losing to France.
“(Winning the Championship) is not a weight not off the shoulders – it is just a great thing to finally achieve something in a green jersey and you saw how much it meant to the country with the reception we got coming home. They are the moments you do it all for.
“I was bloody envious of the guys that did the Grand Slam in ’09 – I still am – so I hope we can go one step further maybe next year.
“With some of the players that we have to come back in, they can only bring us to an even higher level. We’re already looking forward to that.”
Sexton felt that the guiding influence of Schmidt and his fellow coaches was a key element in Ireland’s successful campaign, while also highlighting the camp’s good run of luck regarding injuries.
“Obviously the guys that were in Leinster the last few years have spoken very highly of him, and rightly so – his record speaks for itself,” Sexton said of New Zealander Schmidt.
“But you talk to the guys who have just started working with Joe this season, and they speak just as highly of him.
“I think we had the best coach in the competition and it showed. Some of the tries that we scored, they were preplanned moves that got us a bit of space initially and we did well to finish them off at times. They’re the small margins.
“We did get a bit of luck in this Championship compared to last year with injuries. We did get a pretty clean bill of health the whole way through which does make a massive difference.
“So in that regard, you have to feel for the previous regime under Declan (Kidney), but we earned a bit of luck as well.”
Sexton and his team-mates were swamped by well-wishers and autograph hunters when they touched down at Dublin Airport on Sunday, the feel-good factor continuing from the night before when thousands of Irish fans thronged the Stade de France.
“You could see in all four corners of the ground how green it was, you could really hear them,” explained the 28-year-old.
“It was even more evident after the game when most of the crowd had left and you saw how many Irish people were there. It was incredible that so many people turned up.
“It did make a difference to the players on the day. We knew we had such a big responsibility to those people that paid a hell of a lot of money to come over and watch us, to give them something to cheer and remember from the weekend.”