Sunday 22 October 2017

Sexton: Leinster 'worlds apart' this season

Out-half hails Lancaster influence as he says province's winning culture has been restored

Jonny Sexton
Jonny Sexton
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Not even a year has passed since Johnny Sexton launched his stinging critique of Leinster Rugby but 12 months is a long time in rugby.

The Ireland out-half caused a sensation when he opined in late April 2016 that the province were "culturally nowhere near" where they had been when they were Europe's top team from 2009 to 2012 and called on everyone from the chief executive down to look at their roles in that decline.

"It's obviously got to be everyone, hasn't it?" he said last May.

"It's got to be everyone in the environment, from the CEO right down to whoever's at the bottom. Everyone's got to take responsibility, everyone's got to look at themselves and see if what they've done over the last few months has been good enough."

Yesterday, the Leinster star was asked to compare then with now and he is far more positive in his outlook.

"It's worlds apart I think," he said.

"We've got some key people in that have made a huge difference.

"Not having the World Cup, not having like four months (away), introducing yourself to the guys the first week of the Champions Cup, trying to get combinations going is one factor.

"Not having anything put in place over the summer as a group, that was another factor.

Calibre

"We've added the calibre of player of Robbie (Henshaw), some of the younger players coming through with their attitude, it's been brilliant.

"Stuart (Lancaster) has made a brilliant difference as well. We had Graham Henry in over the summer who had a huge impact in just two weeks. He helped us along the way.

"It's been great, it's worlds apart and we got what we deserved last year and hopefully we can get what we deserve this year."

Lancaster's influence has been key and Sexton has been impressed with the role the former England coach has played in the revival.

"I couldn't have done it," he conceded.

"Look, he's very experienced. He was in charge of the biggest organisation in world rugby, put together a team that, you know, won four out of five Six Nations and came away with nothing. England won four of five this year and won the Six Nations.

"It's small margins, if they'd beaten Wales at the World Cup, they could have gone on and got to the final, they had that game pretty much won wasn't it.

"Again, small margins and I suppose, you see England now have the success but I suppose they were always going to have the success with the team he had put together.

"That team was so good that they just missed out and they've learned from those.

"He's been brilliant since he came in, with his attitude, just the mental side of getting us ready.

"It's been brilliant and thankfully we have him for a couple more years now."

Although he is managing a shoulder problem picked up in the bruising encounter against England last month, the out-half said he is doing "fine" and is expected to be fit to play Clermont Auvergne on Sunday week.

When he looks around the dressing-room he will see a host of players who weren't there when he was last going into a European semi-final, but he has been impressed with the calibre of players being produced by the Leinster Academy.

"It comes in bursts, I suppose 2008/'09 we had that group of... Rob (Kearney) and Luke (Fitzgerald) came in before us but Seán (O'Brien), Devin (Toner), Cian Healy, myself, Fergus McFadden, Kevin McLoughlin, that gave us a boost when we needed it.

Bursts

"I suppose that was nurtured by (Michael) Cheika for a couple of years and the same thing has happened this year right when we needed it.

"Guys have come in, like Garry Ringrose, Adam, Lougho (Rory O'Loughlin) - I thought at the start of the year we looked really thin on the ground with backs when Luke retired and Ben Te'o left and Redser (Eoin Reddan) retired, I was thinking 'Jesus, were in a bit of trouble here'.

"Rory O'Loughlin, Adam Byrne, Tom Daly, Joey Carbery have just sort of come on and maybe it's just that they got their chance, and maybe we could throw the young guys in a bit more, I'm not sure.

"But we badly needed it and thankfully they came through like they did.

"Ross (Byrne) obviously as well, and Luke McGrath, and that's only the backs I'm talking about, so it's been great."

Yesterday, Sexton was speaking as IRUPA rebranded themselves as Rugby Players Ireland and he said the key issue for the players' body is managing players towards their retirement to ensure they are ready for the end.

It is something that the 31-year-old admits he finds daunting.

"You retire from rugby, if you're lucky, in your mid-30s," he said. "Suddenly, you go from very well paid to nothing in the space of a week.

"It is trying to get players as ready for that as possible so that they can look after themselves financially during their career. Then, at the end, they are ready to jump into another job and make sure they don't struggle too much with that.

"That is the scariest part.

"You don't have a schedule that maps out every hour of every week.

"Honestly, when you get to 33, you start to worry about that sort of stuff.

"It can end any time. You see guys younger than you, Luke being the latest example, finish overnight. You would have thought he had five really good years left in him. It is pretty scary.

"I suppose that's why these guys do all the work that they do to make sure we are well looked after."

The after-life may be occupying some part of his mind, but the present offers plenty of opportunity for Sexton and his Leinster colleagues who are back where they want to be.

Irish Independent

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