Even in weeks when there is a triple crown and potential championship on the line, Johnny Sexton and his Ireland team have a long-term goal in mind.
The here and now is important, but there is a real feeling that this team sees all of those games as part of their journey to 2023. Beating England away was a milestone in their book, although they freely admitted there was enough to work on after a hard day at the office.
On the bright side of the ledger, the way the team’s attacking form and some of their executions have troubled England has been a success.
On the negative side, there is a lot of work to be done on the scrum.
Mentally, there’s a debate to be had about this Ireland side, but there’s no doubt they’ve improved their resilience under Andy Farrell.
There is no metric to measure mental toughness, but from a time when Joe Schmidt spoke of them being ‘a bit broken’ by England in 2019, Ireland have slowly rebuilt their belief to a point where she could rip off the momentum of a big Test match just when it seemed to be spiraling out of control.
Of course, their opponents were down to just 14 from the second minute and that played a part in England’s fatigue.
Yet in the aftermath, Sexton said he thought Ireland would not have won this game two years ago.
At the time, Farrell decided not to replace Enda McNulty who had been one of the fall guys in IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora’s review of the 2019 World Cup, which highlighted “performance anxiety” as a key team failure.
After “going into their shells” in a decisive Six Nations game in Paris, Farrell decided to fill the vacancy by adding renowned high performance coach Gary Keegan to his roster.
Keegan’s role isn’t publicly defined, but his name keeps coming up when he talks to players about the progress they’ve made as a team.
Having created Irish boxing’s high performance unit and contributed to Dublin’s success under Jim Gavin, he now has influence over Ireland.
On Saturday, when England equalized and swing lows rained down from the stands, the team remained strong.
Sexton and Iain Henderson rallied the troops after Marcus Smith equalized and despite a half-mast scrum and aerial bombardment they regained their composure and went on to win the game.
“That’s the punch we were talking about, it’s time to settle,” they told their teammates, according to Hugo Keenan. “Stick to our systems and just let us play our game.”
A big away win was the last box to tick in Ireland’s run to France as they hope to add a trophy this weekend.
Sexton believes Keegan is quietly making an impact alongside Farrell that emphasizes the mental side of the game.
“It’s a mix of several things,” he said. “Gary has a big role to play over the past two years. Andy came in and focused a lot on it because we talked about this journey to the World Cup and when you get there it’s a lot of it mental, what you have upstairs.
“We worked on that, often you can have great guys individually to do it, but you have to be all together, collective to do it.
“We’ve been working hard on it for the past few years, we’ve been developing and developing . . . we had good examples on Saturday where we knew how to stay in the moment, play good rugby having made a lot of mistakes in the middle of the match.
“I’ve read a lot about the teams that have won the World Cup and there’s always someone in the background who had a big influence.
“I know the Welsh team has someone over the years, England. . . teams that have had good world cups like New Zealand, Gary is exceptional in his work and he pairs really well with Andy’s stuff. It’s a good team. »
Saturday’s clash against Scotland presents a different challenge as Ireland seek to lift the first trophy of the Farrell era with a victory.
“That’s been the motivation for the last few weeks, to get us to this place,” Sexton said.
“Now that we’re here you kind of have to forget that in a weird way and say, ‘Now this is just a performance’; hopefully we can get our best performance there. .
“We are up against a very good team, they have had big away wins for the past two years with nothing to lose. They have the players to hurt you.
“We have to make sure we’re on the spot in every part of our game, that’s our goal.”