Sexton's rollercoaster of emotions at Stade de France
SPOTLIGHT: From being mobbed by his teammates after his last-gasp winning drop goal in 2018 to the shake of the head on being replaced in the defeat by France two years later, Ireland captain Johnny Sexton has experienced a rollercoaster of emotions at the Stade de France.
The 36-year-old legendary flyhalf says France’s national stadium has played a “big part” in his stellar career and it is the 2020 performance that motivates him to “bounce back” in the clash of the Six Nations favourites on Saturday.
While some interpreted his shake of the head at being taken off during the 27-35 defeat in 2020 as insubordination towards head coach Andy Farrell, he says it was quite the opposite.
“It was a little bit of everything,” he said. “We did not get our prep right and a huge amount of that is down to the captain.
“We did not get our performance right on the day and all that stuff written about my reaction coming off was as much disappointment in myself as not playing as I wanted to.
“A small mistake can be magnified but it makes you stronger and you want to bounce back and prove people wrong.”
Certainly the French have never missed an opportunity to rile Sexton who played for Top 14 side Racing 92 between 2013-15.
Last year, in the lead-up to the Ireland match, his former French doctor spoke about fears for his health due to the number of concussions he had suffered.
A seething Sexton described the comments as “inappropriate and upsetting for my family”.
This year it has been former France coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who said Ireland possibly play better without Sexton.
His argument is undermined by the fact Ireland are on a nine-match Test winning run with Sexton having played in the vast majority of them.
‘Better for the experience’
Sexton prefers to look on the positive side of his relationship with France and how the move to Racing enhanced his career.
“I actually remember talking to Matt O’Connor [Leinster coach 2013-15] at the time when I was coming back to Leinster and we spoke about my time in France,” said Sexton on Tuesday.
“He was telling me he thought it would make me a better player because you have had to learn how to try and win in a different way.
“I was so used to the Leinster way, to the Joe Schmidt way with Ireland and Leinster over the years, and then to get exposed to a set-up in Racing that was very different, you did learn a lot about yourself and how a team runs, how it operates.
“So I think I am definitely better for the experience and I definitely learned a lot when I was over there.”
The fruits can be seen in Sexton and Ireland winning at the Stade de France in 2014 and 2018.
It is the 2014 victory that is for Sexton the win that stands out, even though the 2018 victory was the launching pad to the Grand Slam.
The 22-20 triumph in 2014 – Sexton scored 17 of their points – saw the Irish crowned champions and ensured iconic centre Brian O’Driscoll’s career ended on a high note.
It had been O’Driscoll who had ended 28 years of frustration in Paris for the Irish as his hat-trick of tries gave them a 27-25 win at the Stade de France in 2000.
However, it is not for sentimental reasons Sexton prefers the 2014 victory over 2018.
“Anytime you win a trophy, it is incredibly special,” he said.
“So to get a trophy at the end of that day – even though my memory of it was a bit, you know! [French centre] Mathieu Bastareaud got to me a couple of times that day.
“I just think anytime you get the trophy you will remember that game more fondly than any of the others, so I’d say 2014 would be up there definitely.”