‘I don’t have any say in selection,’ Sexton began, before the head coach, sat alongside him, cut in.
‘He does, he picks the side,’ joked Farrell.
During Farrell’s uncertain first year as head coach, a time distorted by the pandemic, lockdown and associated privations, there was a constituency that would have been all too ready to believe that.
There was a suspicion in certain quarters that Sexton was one of a handful of senior players who had too much say. Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray were other veterans suspected of pulling strings.
Johnny Sexton surpassed Ronan O’Gara’s Ireland points record in the eight-try rout of Tonga
There had been a conspiracy that the likes of Sexton held too much sway in Andy Farrell’s camp
The conspiracy theory went that it was the influence of this cadre of seasoned pros who got Farrell the job, conveying their enthusiasm for Joe Schmidt’s assistant within the IRFU, and so earning his promotion.
In return, Farrell gave them the run of the place, making Sexton captain and rendering a then-34 year old with an extensive injury record, undroppable.
It was, like the juiciest rumours, off the wall. But also in common with the richest gossip, there was a faint dash of truth.
Specifically, Farrell trusted his leaders to an extent that would have been unimaginable under Schmidt.
The brilliance of the latter was in composing a plan and then drilling his players in it until it was refined to a point of near-perfection. There were senior figures within that arrangement, of course, but all were equal in their subservience to a tactical plan.
It worked until it was worked out, and as rivals grew better at decommissioning Irish attacks throughout 2019, there was no space for the players to find a way out. It was all about the plan, and then the plan went to pieces at the World Cup.
The impact that season has had on Farrell’s approach has never been so clear.
Players are empowered to a way they have never been under any coach in the professional age. As part of that, Sexton and the other senior figures are trusted to provide input off the field, and to find answers to problems on it.
After Farrell made the then-34 year old fly half captain he became virtually undroppable for Ireland
It has worked marvellously for two seasons now. The team are unbeaten since the first Test against New Zealand in July of last year.
Central to it all is Sexton. Ireland are poorer without him, at times alarmingly so.
That’s why Farrell’s decision to pick his captain for this win against Tonga prompted reservations here. The risks involved were obvious, and seemed improbably large, given how vital it is to have Sexton fit for the blockbuster against South Africa next Saturday.
But the plan worked to perfection. Sexton was imperious, as usual. He broke the Irish points record, not through a routine penalty or conversion, but with the fourth try that clinched a bonus point, in front of a stand full of adoring Irish fans.
Farrell took him off at half time, allowing Sexton to start preparing for the Springboks early.
The admiration for their captain is widespread throughout this squad, but his long-time half-back partner had a wry take on the record when asked about it afterwards.
What are your thoughts on Sexton’s achievement, Conor Murray was asked.
Cue a smile. ‘Rog won’t be happy.’
O’Gara has now been surpassed as his country’s record points scorer – as well as their finest fly half
O’Gara’s centrality to Ireland’s prospects is mirrored by that of Sexton in Farrell’s set-up
Ronan O’Gara has now been surpassed as Ireland’s record points scorer, and also as the country’s finest, most influential out half.
There was a time when O’Gara’s centrality to Ireland’s hopes was a given. Sexton is even more important in a better and more successful side.
He was asked shortly after the final whistle on Saturday night if O’Gara had been in touch.
‘I haven’t checked my phone yet,’ he replied. ‘I’m not sure we’re talking to each other after the European Cup final,’ he later said with a laugh.
O’Gara has long recognised Sexton’s brilliance, not least since their time together as player and coach at Racing.
South Africa know about it, too. The way they coursed Finn Russell around Marseille a week ago is a fair indication of what they will try and do to Ireland’s No 10 in the Stade de France.
Rassie Erasmus and Felix Jones know Sexton up close. Jacques Nienaber won’t get to work with the master, with one departing Leinster as the other arrives.
But Sexton’s value to Farrell’s plans and Ireland’s dreams can be clearly discerned from a distance, too.
Stopping the influential No 10 will be key for South Africa stalling Ireland’s talents in Paris
It may seem simplistic to suggest that stopping him stalls the No 1 team in the world, but it’s mostly true.
It’s equally true that opposition defences have been trying to nullify Sexton for years, and meeting with mixed success.
Take it for certain that Ireland have some new moves to set free against the blitz Springbok defence that will be unleashed in Paris.
Farrell was asked after the match if Ireland have been holding back some plays. ‘Loads, loads,’ he deadpanned. He has rarely looked as satisfied as he did on Saturday night. The team he chose was justified, some early creakiness was worked out quickly, and Finlay Bealham was the only injury issue.
His status should be clarified in the coming days, after being removed within minutes of his half-time introduction in Nantes. Given his form, the way South Africa use their ‘Bomb Squad’, and the fact that Tadhg Furlong had to play the guts of 80 minutes in Nantes, a fit Bealham is important for Saturday.
But to pitch up for the headline match of the pool stages with such an uncluttered treatment room is both fortunate and testament to Ireland’s conditioning.
The players look in extraordinary fettle. Some, like James Ryan and Caelan Doris, seem to have bulked up. Others, most obviously Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne, and Josh van der Flier, are in supreme shape.
To have those resources boosted by the return of a fit Dan Sheehan this week would give Ireland’s prospects another positive shunt forwards.
Finlay Bealham is the only injury doubt in the Ireland camp after a head injury against Tonga
It’s all going so well that you wonder what the catch is.
And then you remember it’s a series of catches. They wear the jerseys of the world champions, and they will stress Ireland in ways that no other country can.
They will present a test that bears no relation to the difficulties mustered by Romania and Tonga.
The increase in difficulty from week two to week three is stark.
Yet nothing ruffles Ireland now. Preparing for the unexpected is a central tenet of Farrell’s approach.
South Africa are the world champions and will offer far greater threat than that of Romania and Tonga
Another is trusting in his main men. He backed Sexton to extend his career into his late 30s, in one of the most unforgiving sports on the planet.
In return, Sexton has produced the form of his life.
The South Africans are taking it all in. And Sexton, his coach and his team-mates couldn’t care less.
This is about them. And they are ready for what’s coming.