‘We feel we’re progressing’ – Ireland captain Johnny Sexton hits back at critics

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton has dismissed suggestions the team have gone backwards under head coach Andy Farrell and accused the media of being overly critical.

Farrell’s first year in the job, which has included two disappointing defeats to England and one against France, was assessed as “an average return” by Irish Rugby Football Union performance director David Nucifora.

The Irish will complete an inconsistent 2020 with Saturday’s third-place play-off against Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup.

Andy Farrell's first year as Ireland head coach was assessed as
Andy Farrell's first year as Ireland head coach was assessed as

Fly-half Sexton, who is set to return from a hamstring injury for the weekend game in Dublin, is adamant progress is being made and offered to show video footage to support his argument.

“If you look at our results, we’ve lost twice to England away and we’ve lost to France away, we’ve won the rest of our games,” he said.

“If you’re talking about results – which is what Test match rugby is about – there have been plenty of Irish teams over the years that have lost in Twickenham and have lost in France.

“Were they games we could have won? Maybe not the first England game. The second one and the French one, we definitely feel like there were things we did that got away from us.

“England were in a World Cup final, they’re probably one of the better teams in the world at the moment and we need to get up to that level.

“Have we gone backwards? Not when you compare it to 2019. If you go and compare it to 2018 then obviously. But we went backwards in 2019, the same team went backwards.

“I know you guys (the media) don’t agree but we feel like we’re progressing and we need to show it, and that’s where the gap in opinion is really.

“We can show you some video clips, if you want, of us creating lots of opportunities that we are just not finishing. That’s what we feel, you can disagree if you want, but that’s where we are.”

Since stepping up from assistant coach to succeed Joe Schmidt after last year’s World Cup, Farrell has chopped and changed with his selection, picking 40 players across eight fixtures and handing out a string of debuts.

Ireland finished third in the Guinness Six Nations and also attracted criticism for their laboured display in Sunday’s underwhelming 23-10 win over Georgia.

  • Ireland 19-12 Scotland (Six Nations)

  • Ireland 24-14 Wales (Six Nations)

  • England 24-12 Ireland (Six Nations)

  • Ireland 50-17 Italy (Six Nations)

  • France 35-27 Ireland (Six Nations)

  • Ireland 32-9 Wales (Autumn Nations Cup)

  • England 18-7 Ireland (Autumn Nations Cup)

  • Ireland 23-10 Georgia (Autumn Nations Cup)

Sexton watched that game from the Aviva Stadium stands and echoed Farrell’s post-match comments that the second-half showing was unacceptable.

“It’s not our standard and we’re not getting away from that,” Sexton said.

“We hope to right those wrongs over this week and the Six Nations is massive then. We need to try and put it all together on Saturday.

“We’ve shown bits and pieces and it just hasn’t been consistent enough and we need to get that in there for 80 minutes on Saturday.”

The IRFU and four Irish provinces will continue to refrain from entering into contract negotiations with players amid financial concerns caused by Covid-19.

Ireland produced an underwhelming display in the win over Georgia
Ireland produced an underwhelming display in the win over Georgia

Nucifora revealed on Monday that more than 50 per cent of players’ deals expire in June, including Sexton’s.

The 35-year-old accepts the pandemic has created uncertainty across the globe but insists the issue has not impacted performances.

“I think it’s an anxious time for everyone in the world. I don’t think there’s much certainty with anything going on at the moment,” he said.

“And we’re just in that category at the moment, there’s nothing we can do about it.

“I am sure the IRFU would have loved to have got their players under contract. But they can’t because they need to be in a position to be able to honour those contracts.

Latest news from @IrishRugby camp @BillyBurns10 ruled out of @Scotlandteam fixture.

Full squad update here⬇️https://t.co/kD8mV97JB4#shouldertoshoulder#teamofus#AutumnNationsCup

— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) December 1, 2020

“We understand that, we’ve been briefed on it through the players’ association.

“It’s not ideal from anyone’s point of view but it’s not a reason why our performances haven’t been what they want. That’s just excuses and we don’t want to make excuses. It’s a tough time for a lot of people in the world.”

Sexton and centre Robbie Henshaw will be back to bolster the ranks for the visit of Gregor Towsend’s men but fly-half Billy Burns and winger James Lowe have been ruled out by groin problems.

Winger Keith Earls (back), scrum-half Conor Murray (dead leg) and hooker Rob Herring (rib) should also be available to Farrell.