Ireland rugby captain Johnny Sexton hit back at the critics on Tuesday, insisting the side had not gone backwards since Andy Farrell took over as head coach after last year’s World Cup.
The 35-year-old fly-half returns as captain for Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup third-place play-off with Scotland having missed the last two games due to a hamstring injury.
And it couldn’t come quick enough for Sexton, who jokingly questioned his suitability as a waterboy due to the frustration he felt on the sidelines during the matches he sat out.
Turning to Farrell, Sexton said he felt Ireland were making progress under the former Wigan, England and Britain rugby league legend who was also capped in union after crossing codes.
Farrell moved up from assistant coach to the top job after Joe Schmidt stepped down following a hugely successful tenure.
The New Zealander’s six-year reign, however, ended in a damp squib with a poor defence last year of their 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam and an underwhelming World Cup.
“No,” was Sexton’s emphatic answer when asked about going backwards.
“Look at our results: we lost twice away to England, who are World Cup finalists, and once to France.
“Taken on the basis Test rugby is about results then we are not doing badly.
“Plenty of Irish teams have lost at Twickenham and in France and we could have won two of those.
“You can say in 2019 the same team from 2018 went backwards but not us, we are a new group.”
‘Stop start year’
There has been a fair amount of criticism of the team from former players including Shane Horgan highlighting a lack of consistency and being unable to deliver a full 80-minute performance.
Those were all traits of the Schmidt era when he kept a tight control on everything on and off-field whereas Farrell employs a more relaxed approach.
Sexton was as scathing of the Irish second-half performance in the laboured 23-10 win over Georgia on Sunday as Farrell had been, saying it simply was not good enough.
“We feel we are progressing and need to show it on the pitch as we have been in training,” he said.
“We need to put out there an 80-minute performance.
“When you get opportunities to score you have to take them and when they are clear-cut ones and they go begging that is not good enough.”
Sexton said victory over Scotland — who the Irish edged 19-12 at Lansdowne Road in the Six Nations earlier this year — would give them momentum to take into next year’s Six Nations.
“This has been a stop start year for obvious reasons,” said Sexton, referring to the impact coronavirus had on the sport, bringing it to a halt in March before resuming in August.
“It is important for us to show people on Sunday evidence of the good work we have been doing and give them a performance to savour.
“Also a performance that leads us into the Six Nations in good heart.
“We want to achieve great things and we are determined to put in a performance on Saturday.”