JONATHAN SEXTON has called on Ireland's next generation to step up and lead Ireland to Six Nations glory next month.
The national team endured a difficult 2012, with coach Declan Kidney steadily introducing a slew of young players as many of the so-called 'golden generation' move into the latter stages of their careers.
Having won 34 caps, the Leinster fly-half has emerged as one of the key leaders in the international set-up as injury limits the participation of the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Rory Best.
And, after soaking up the knowledge available from those experienced campaigners, the 27-year-old wants the young guns to lead the charge when the Six Nations begins in Cardiff in less than a month's time.
"Playing with guys like Brian O'Driscoll has been an honour for me and I'd put a lot of other players in that bracket – you learn so much from these guys," he said.
"But it is time now for the younger guys to come in and start taking ownership of the team.
"Those guys earned their reputations by producing in an Ireland jersey year in, year out – the younger guys, we've produced on occasion but we haven't done it consistently and that's what we need to do now going forward."
Sexton admits that he found the going difficult when he first reached the international stage, particularly when battling for the No 10 jersey with Ireland's most capped player and highest points scorer Ronan O'Gara.
And he can empathise with the younger faces in the camp now, although he wants them to follow his lead next month.
"People probably think I'm a new boy because I look about 15! But I'd say I'm somewhere in the middle – I've just turned 27 so it's up to people like me to take charge of the team," he said.
"I found it hard when I first came in because Ronan O'Gara had been the outside-half in that team for 10 years and I wasn't sure whether the guys would listen to me in the same way they'd listened to him – they are the kind of doubts you have when you come in."
If Sexton (right) continues his imperious Leinster form in an Ireland jersey next month, the St Mary's man will be in line to start for the Lions in Australia.
He appears to be the out-and-out favourite for the fly-half position when the tourists make the long journey south in June, but having previously admitted that the hype surrounding Warren Gatland's squad got to him earlier in the season, he is trying to keep Lions talk to a minimum.
"It's something I desperately want to go on, but it's not worth thinking about right now. I need to concentrate on my week-to-week performances," he said.
"People say it's the pinnacle – and it is. Only the best players get picked and it will be a massive honour for anyone who is picked. But then every player in Europe will have that as a goal – it's going to be a tough thing to do, to get on that tour. But for me, it's about trying not to think about it.
"The South Africa tour – the 'Living with the Lions' documentary – I must have watched that about a hundred times and I remember Brian's try against Australia.
"I watched the last tour to South Africa a bit differently because by then I was a professional rugby player and envious that I wasn't involved – it seems like such a good place to be and an amazing trip to be part of."