Ireland captain Johnny Sexton is driven by history – the reminder of what was and the promise of what can be.
Sexton is pivotal to Ireland’s success at the World Cup, an occasion that will be his professional rugby send-off.
History says Ireland have never gone past a quarter-final in the World Cup, and Sexton has worn the No 10 jersey on some of those pained nights when Ireland’s lights were dimmed and then snuffed out.
Disappointment and despair are prominent in Sexton’s celebrated career, but so too is euphoria and Sexton in the past few years has been at the forefront of changing history and not reinforcing a repetitive narrative of gloom.
Sexton’s leadership and understanding of the game is unrivalled at this World Cup when it comes to those wearing the No 10 jersey. There are fabulous flyhalves playing in the World Cup, just like there are wonderful operators of the jersey in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
But there has not been any quite like Sexton, in terms of longevity, experience, performance and consistency in delivery.
Sexton’s career delivered many knockdowns, but never was a blow hard enough to knock him out. He has got off the canvas every time, for Leinster and for Ireland and turned adversity into an adventure.
Sexton was there in 2009 when Ireland won their first Grand Slam for 61 years. He was there when Leinster won the first of four European titles, and he has been consistent with Leinster’s ascent to the top in Europe and Ireland’s march towards being ranked the No 1 team in the game.
In 2012 the All Blacks beat Ireland 60-0 in New Zealand. Sexton played that game and a decade later he also guided Ireland to a first-ever Test win in New Zealand and a historic 2-1 series win in New Zealand.
Ireland could not beat the All Blacks for 112 years, but the veteran Sexton changed history. Ireland has beaten the All Blacks in four of their last five Tests.
Ireland has also beaten Scotland in their past eight Tests and victory on Saturday would equal Ireland’s longest winning streak against Scotland, dating back to 1955.
All the talk has been of Sexton against Scotland’s mercurial flyhalf Finn Russell. The two are opposites in every sense, as personalities and as rugby players.
Scotland will look to Russell’s attacking genius to create history against Ireland and beat them in France, while Ireland will expect Sexton’s precision and decision-making to suck the life out of the Scottish challenge.
Saturday night in Paris at the Stade de France is going to be massive when these two proud rugby nations go tribal on each other.
The result will determine which of Ireland, Scotland and South Africa qualify as the top two in their group for the play-offs. The permutations are plenty and a stunning Scotland performance could eliminate either of Ireland or defending champions South Africa.
The Boks have 15 points from three wins and a losing bonus point. Scotland, should they score four tries and win, can get to 15 points and Ireland only needs one bonus point to get to 15.
If all teams finish on 15 points, points differential determines first place and head-to-head determines who gets second.
For Sexton, there is no coming second in this match, given that he has not lost to a Scottish club or national team in the past 12 years.
For Sexton Saturday is about driving home this 12-year history and not allowing Russell to create a different kind of history.
Photo: EPA/TIM KEETON