Tuesday 27 September 2016

'I thought it would be like old times, but it wasn't' - Sexton on his Leinster return

Sexton over tough start and targeting 'something special' with Leinster

Published 28/04/2016 | 02:30

Johnny Sexton insists he doesn’t have a problem with being targeted by opponents. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Johnny Sexton insists he doesn’t have a problem with being targeted by opponents. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

When he made his decision to come home from Paris, Johnny Sexton couldn't have imagined that he would spend European semi-final weekend watching his old Racing team-mates reach the Champions Cup decider from the comfort of his couch.

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Although he had been away from Leinster for the entirety of the Matt O'Connor era, in which standards fell from the heights reached between 2009 and 2012, he fully believed that coming back would be seamless and that his home province would continue to compete.

It didn't happen in Europe this season as the Blues got off to a humbling start against Wasps and never recovered.

Leinster's pool exit has allowed the out-half some time to reflect in recent weeks, while also giving him a chance to nurse some niggles picked up during a tough Six Nations campaign.

Having endured a difficult return, he is starting to feel good about the province's fortunes.

"I thought I was going to be plain sailing. I thought I was just going to come back in and it would be like old times but it wasn't," he conceded.

"I struggled myself at the start performance-wise and had a couple of really bad games in Europe.

"But, since I've been more comfortable in the environment, my form has been much better, really since the start of the year I've been happy.

"I had been happy with some of things before Christmas but obviously that was overshadowed by a couple of bad performances and I was disappointed with myself and it probably cost me in a lot of ways.

"Getting back on the horse is a tough thing to do and I have been happy with my form since Christmas.

"Again, all you can do is try and get yourself right and if you can do that you can lead by example. It is easier to lead the team if you are performing than if you are not playing well and it is very hard to be telling people what to do.

"Look, a lot of lessons were learned from a group and an individual point of view in that November period and I am just delighted to be back in that system and building towards something special in the future."

Nobody could complain about Sexton's performances during the Six Nations where he was consistently Ireland's best performer despite enduring what the IRFU described as a 'whiplash-style' injury against Wales.

That was followed by the sort of special treatment he has come to expect against France and an Eddie Jones-orchestrated furore that brought head injuries back on to the agenda.

Sexton is clearly unhappy with the tone of some of the coverage he receives, but, being flipped over by Scotland centre Alex Dunbar aside, he has no complaints with the way he is targeted on the pitch by opponents.

"You are going to target the No 10 more than any other player on the pitch but doing it legally is the thing," he said. "We're going to make Paddy (Jackson) make a lot of tackles at the weekend because he's got to take the goal kicks and it's going to be harder if he has to pick himself up off the ground 20 times during the game - that's just good, clever play.

"It does happen, but some of that stuff can be on the edge as you're passing the ball and get tackled. I don't have a problem with that, it's the stuff that's totally away from the ball that can be tougher to take.

"Look, it's not something I have a problem with, I've never really said that it's been a big problem, it's just part of the game. . . once the referees are keeping an eye out for it then that's the main thing.

Angry

"The only one that I was a little bit angry about was the Scottish one where I got tipped upside down. You could see I was angry by my reaction, that was the only one that I felt vulnerable, the rest I felt fine."

After that Scotland game, when Sexton won a ruck turnover and was yellow-carded for a maul offence, Joe Schmidt shook his head in admiration and said: "We try to mind him a little bit, but there's no minding that man".

Sexton rejects criticism of his tackle technique and is bemused by the idea he can take himself out of the firing line.

"It's hard," he said. There was a time I was criticised that I couldn't tackle, it's funny how things can go from that to people then saying 'oh, you tackle too much'. It's funny the way perceptions can change.

"I don't know, I just go out and try to play my best and give it my all. It's very hard to tell other people to defend if you're not doing it yourself, I go out and do my best physically.

"I wouldn't be the most physical guy on the team in terms of my size, but once you try your best that's the main thing, that's the way I've always approached the game really.

"Going out trying not to tackle or staying away from tackles, I couldn't think of playing a rugby match with that in mind and trying to save yourself. Paddy's the same, he's a very brave guy, a very brave tackler and he makes his fair share as well.

"Dan Carter made 14 tackles at the weekend, that's essentially what won the game for Racing, whereas if he didn't make some of those tackles Leicester could have scored a try, so I think in the modern game every player on the pitch has to contribute to defence and contribute to the physical side of the game."

Like captain Rory Best, Sexton reflects on the Six Nations regretting a missed opportunity.

Yet he has had a chance to freshen up since then, playing only one match against Munster and is feeling good about the run-in as well as the three-Test tour of South Africa this summer.

In 2012, the out-half was part of the Ireland team who lost 60-0 to New Zealand at the end of a World Cup year and, while he accepts this June won't be easy, he is not anticipating a repeat performance.

"I think what happened on that Tour was there was a drop-off after the second game, because we came so close," he recalled.

"This might sound stupid, but they lost (Dan) Carter and (Richie) McCaw for the third Test, and we probably thought 'we have a great chance here'. Guys took their foot off the gas a little bit, and if you do that against New Zealand, you quickly find out that Aaron Cruden and Sam Cane aren't actually far behind those two.

"We learnt harsh lessons on that tour, but I don't think the same thing will happen on this tour. We're too well coached and managed that guys would ever take anything for granted in the environment.

"We know that there is history at stake in South Africa. To win a game would make history, to win a Test series would be something really special.

"Playing South Africa in South Africa, there's a reason why they don't get beaten there too often. Probably New Zealand is the only country to ever sort of win there regularly. It's going to be really tough, but it's a great challenge for us."

Johnny Sexton yesterday launched the return of Topaz 'Cash for Clubs', a community initiative that offers clubs of all types and sizes from across the island of Ireland the chance to win up to €250,000 in cash prizes.

Irish Independent

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