Johnny Sexton – “It Was Crazy, Part Of Me Hated Playing For Ireland.”

Rivals.

Johnny Sexton has reflected on his early years in an Ireland jersey and his rivalry with Ronan O’Gara in an excellent chat with Off The Ball ahead of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Sexton came into the last World Cup, as he will at this year’s tournament, as Ireland’s first-choice outhalf. But in 2011, Sexton was very much still in O’Gara’s shadow as he fought to overtake Ireland’s record points-scorer.

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These days the pair are close friends, having spent time together at Racing 92, but in the beginning, things were a lot different. Sexton recalls starting against Australia in the pool stages, only for O’Gara to take his place in the quarter-final after an excellent showing off the bench.

“It was the highest pressure I’d ever felt for a kick, and I nailed it.” Sexton said recalling a second-half penalty against Australia

“Got another kick out towards the sideline, took it on and it was a great kick but it hits the post. I thought it was over the whole way.

“ROG came on, kicked a couple of good kicks and he retained his place … for the quarter-final.”

Sexton spoke with his kicking coach at the time after that World Cup, and ended up visualising O’Gara to help him improve his game.

“Myself and Dave (Alred) got together after that World Cup and I said to him that there were a couple of kicks where I am lining up and behind the posts, ROG is there.” Sexton continued

“He told me, ‘Next time that happens in a game, I want you to have that as your target and put the ball right between his eyes.’

“It was a great visualisation thing for me.”

But looking back, Sexton says he almost “hated” playing for Ireland because of the pressure and criticism that came with him rivalling one if Ireland’s greatest players.

‘It was crazy, part of me hated playing for Ireland.” Sexton added

“You’d feel like half of the country is against you while you’re doing something you’ve dreamt of since you were a kid.

“You think that when you’re playing for Ireland that you’ll have the full support of the country, but that was wishful thinking.

“There was a lot of criticism and scrutiny because ROG had been such a great servant to Irish rugby before me.”