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I have loved watching Johnny Sexton recently. It’s clear he has been enjoying every minute of his last Six Nations.
He’s been smiling in interviews, fighting back the tears during anthems and, of course, giving his absolute maximum on the pitch.
And it’s all come down to this. On Saturday, Ireland have the chance to win their fourth Grand Slam – but first in Dublin – and it seems fitting that Sexton, a man who has done so much for Irish rugby, will lead the team on what could be a historic occasion.
Sexton has seen and done it all before. He was a Grand Slam winner in 2018 and has three Six Nations titles to his name. With Leinster, he’s won four European Champions Cups and six league titles. He was also the World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018.
Lead Ireland to the Grand Slam on Saturday and he’ll become the country’s most decorated player, but winning a Grand Slam at home would be extra special.
It will be a historic moment if Ireland can get the job done and there is no better man than Sexton to lift the trophy in front of an adoring Dublin crowd on St Patrick’s Day weekend.
Sexton is a once in a generation player. To still be leading this team at 37 is a remarkable feat, and he’ll be 38 by the time the World Cup comes around.
He’s a fierce competitor and the consummate professional. He holds himself to the highest standards and expects others to meet those standards.
For matches, he is meticulous about even the smallest details, but off the pitch he is a completely different character. He’s someone who is really able to enjoy himself and he’d love nothing more than beating England to win a Grand Slam at home.
‘Disappointment for Ringrose and Henderson’
And while Sexton will be front and centre on Ireland’s big day, I can’t help but feel gutted for the likes of Garry Ringrose and Iain Henderson, who miss out through injury.
They are two guys who have been so influential during this campaign and it is cruel that they are denied the chance to play in such a momentous match.
I can empathise with the guys who aren’t there, too. When I was playing for the Ospreys, I wasn’t fit for the Pro14 final in 2012. It’s a special thing lifting a trophy, but not being in your full kit to do it is difficult.
But it’s a measure of the Irish team that players can slot in so easily. For the Scotland game, Andy Farrell welcomed back six players so you can see how it’s been a squad effort throughout this campaign.
Farrell may be missing the likes of Tadhg Beirne, Ringrose and Henderson, but look at the calibre of players he’s able to bring back into the starting team to face England in Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw.
It shows the strength in depth Farrell has been building in this World Cup cycle. It’s been great to see, and while it’s heartening to see such a wealth of options available to Farrell, silverware would be the perfect launchpad into the final six months of World Cup preparation.
Far from foregone conclusion
One of the best memories of my career was playing against England in 2010. It was the third round of the Six Nations and England’s Grand Slam bid had begun smoothly with wins over Wales and Italy.
But we managed to beat them at Twickenham and derail their bid for a clean sweep. I scored two tries that day, and while scoring against England at Twickenham is always special, bursting their Grand Slam momentum in the process made it even sweeter.
That’s exactly what England will be focused on in Dublin. With no hope of winning the championship, they will be setting out to ruin Ireland’s big day.
Given last weekend’s result at Twickenham, a lot of people can’t see that happening. Yes, England losing by 50 points to France was frankly incredible, but I don’t expect to see that England side to turn up in Dublin.
There will definitely be a reaction from the English players and denying Ireland a Dublin Grand Slam party on St Patrick’s Day weekend is more than enough incentive for Steve Borthwick’s men to pull out a big performance.
Ireland will be planning for exactly that as Farrell looks to close out a memorable campaign with the ultimate prize. Winning a championship would be a satisfactory return for Ireland, but losing to England would create that little bit of doubt before the World Cup.
The Slam is that cherry on top. Beating England again would give Ireland the ultimate pre-World Cup achievement and Sexton the championship send-off he deserves.
Tommy Bowe was speaking to BBC Sport NI’s Matt Gault