Johnny Sexton aiming high after winning finish to Autumn Nations Cup

Johnny Sexton is confident Ireland can return to the top table of international rugby after ending a challenging 2020 by finishing third in the Autumn Nations Cup following victory over Scotland.

Head coach Andy Farrell has attracted criticism during his first 12 months in the job on the back of two defeats to England and one to France, in addition to a series of unconvincing performances.

The Irish recovered well from a slow start against the Scots on Saturday afternoon to run out resounding 31-16 winners and bounce back from last weekend’s underwhelming success over Georgia.

Captain Sexton accepts his country still have work to do but is satisfied with the progress being made under Farrell and hopes the team can enhance their standing among the world’s best during the 2021 Six Nations.

“Obviously us as a team, we’re not at the top table yet in terms of we’ve not been able to beat France or England away from home, and that’s what the top teams are able to do,” said Sexton.

“We’re just below that at the moment.

“But I am confident in this team and coaching staff that we can go to that level and we can get there – hopefully in February (the start of the Six Nations) we will be able to get there.

“Today was a good end to the year. We need to just keep evolving, keep improving.

Andy Farrell's Ireland ended 2020 with a win
Andy Farrell’s Ireland ended 2020 with a win (Adam Davy/PA)

“I think we have. I know you guys (the media) maybe aren’t aligned with us, but I thought we saw some of the things we have been speaking about tonight and we showed some really good stuff.”

Fly-half Sexton, back from two games out with a hamstring injury, kicked 10 points before being forced off in the second half with a dead leg.

A pair of tries from Keith Earls and one from Cian Healy paved the way for the hosts’ success after they weathered Scotland’s strong start.

Sexton was delighted with his team’s positive response.

“Obviously the way we started the game wasn’t brilliant but very, very proud of the lads the way we reacted to that,” said the 35-year-old.

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“I suppose they had their purple patch early and then I thought we did really well for the rest of the game.

“They stressed us at times – they had some big ball carries – but once we got settled in after 15 minutes, I thought we were excellent.

“The next step is obviously not to have a slowish start like that. But we stuck in there, we rolled with some of the punches and then we bounced back, which has been a big learning for us over the last number of weeks.

“Test match rugby, you are never going to go out there against a team as good as Scotland and dominate for 80 minutes.

“We stuck in there when we needed to and some really good stuff after that.”

Scotland’s Jaco Van Der Walt, second left, made an impressive debut
Scotland’s Jaco Van Der Walt, second left, made an impressive debut (Brian Lawless/PA)

Debutant Jaco Van Der Walt kicked three penalties to put Scotland 9-6 ahead before they faded following Duncan Taylor’s 30th-minute sin-binning for a deliberate knock on.

Duhan Van Der Merwe’s converted second-half try kept the scoreline respectable but the visitors have now lost seven successive games in Dublin.

Head coach Gregor Townsend was left to rue indiscipline – which led to Taylor’s temporary departure and a string of penalties – after being encouraged by the opening stages.

“I thought the first 35 minutes was some of the best rugby we’ve played all year and that was probably above expectations given it was a new team today – a new 10, a new 12 (Van Der Walt and Taylor),” said Townsend.

“To see who we are out there for that first 35 minutes was great. The disappointing thing is what happened in the 10, 15 minutes after that.

Gregor Townsend was delighted with Scotland's start in Dublin
Gregor Townsend was delighted with Scotland’s start in Dublin (Ian Rutherford/PA)

“Yes, we want to see long-term development and the team improving but you come here to win games and we went from a position where we felt we could kick on and win that game to one where it went away from us.

“We were on the edge a few times and we’ve just got to know where that edge is because I felt we were comfortable in defence when we weren’t giving away penalties.

“We know we have to improve our discipline, because apart from that there were so many good things.”

Asked about Taylor’s yellow card, he said: “We know that’s something we’ve seen given yellow cards in the past.

“It obviously put us under a lot of pressure. To have a man down for that period, Ireland had a lot of their possession during that period.”

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