Jonathan Sexton will lead Ireland into his fourth and final Rugby World Cup which begins next week. He captains a 33-player squad that was announced by head coach Andy Farrell at the Shelbourne Hotel yesterday.
Farrell’s side got into the tournament ranked number one in the world, and on a record 13-match winning streak following victories over Italy, England and Samoa this month.
The head coach went with an 18/15 split of forwards and backs and while Cian Healy’s cruelly-timed calf injury which he sustained against Samoa on Saturday ruled him out it means an opportunity now for Jeremy Loughman.
Captain Sexton spoke to the assembled media after the squad announcement, and he believes that this group of players can go on to create history.
“I’ve been in groups before where you go to a World Cup and you say we’re here to win it but you don’t often have the achievements to back that up,” he said.
“We’ve got things like the Grand Slam, going to New Zealand and winning a series – stuff like that, stuff that when you go back over other teams that have won it (the World Cup), like England in 2003.
“They said they needed to win a Grand Slam, they needed to win in the southern hemisphere to win a World Cup.”
Due to a combination of injury and suspension, Sexton has not played since Ireland were crowned Six Nations Grand Slam champions against England back in March.
He suffered a groin injury during that game that forced him off the pitch, followed by a spell on the sidelines that saw him miss the end of the season with Leinster, including their Heineken Champions Cup final loss at the hands of La Rochelle.
It was a difficult way for him to end his Leinster career, but the 38-year-old out-half praised the IRFU for making sure he made the best recovery possible. He was under the care of a Doctor Griffin in the UK.
For a kicker, to injure your adductors like I did is not ideal. Thankfully the IRFU sent me to the best guy in the world (Griffin). He did a great job.
“He mapped it out for me and he was literally, to the day, accurate in what he told me – when I could return to training when I could kick a ball again.
“He just mapped it out, knew from his experience. It’s very impressive to see. Thankfully it’s been good over the last number of weeks and hopefully ready to go.”
Sexton has been training for a number of weeks in Ireland’s pre-season block, but was unavailable for selection due to the three-match ban he received because of remarks he made to match officials on the pitch after the Champions Cup decider.
The disciplinary process that followed was a lengthy one, creating quite the public debate on the likely outcome for the Ireland skipper. He regrets his actions on the day, saying he got caught up in the heat of the moment.
“As I said previously, I made a mistake in that one moment,” he admitted. “That’s what I held my hand up for. I don’t go along with a lot of the other stuff that was thrown at me, but sometimes you’ve just got to take it on the chin.
“It’s over now, thankfully, and hopefully I’ll be in good shape come (our first pool game against) Romania in two weeks.”
One player that unfortunately will not be on the plane to France is Sexton’s long-time Leinster and Ireland team-mate Healy.
The 35-year-old prop was dealt a devasting blow when he injured his right leg during a scrum against the Samoans. Sexton has soldiered together with Healy for over ten years and is gutted for the Clontarf native to be ruled out.
“He has been through ups and downs in his career, he’s a very, very decorated player. A great player. We’re going to miss him. I’m gutted for him to miss this tournament.
“It has meant a lot to him in how he has prepared for it and how he has trained, so I’m gutted for him.”
The 113-times capped Sexton is looking for one last hurrah at this World Cup. He is hoping to hit the ground running in France, aiming to get to the levels of performance necessary to help his side reach new heights.
“Time will tell, when I get the chance to play. If I get a chance to play, I have to show it. I have to show it in training over the next couple of weeks and then…I will be motivated to do so. We will see in a couple of weeks,” he added.