Sexton test of endurance
Irish No 10's gruelling Top 14 schedule highlights the strain of losing stars to French giants, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
'It can be frustrating, especially for me, because I always start playing better when I've had a run of games. You are starting to find your best form and then you have a break again."
So spoke Jonathan Sexton in mid-December last year as he contemplated a few weeks off over the festive season as part of the IRFU's 'player management system'.
A penny for his thoughts now.
The Ireland fly-half had played 784 minutes of rugby as Christmas approached last season, with nine games for Leinster and two for Ireland under his belt.
He felt fresh and was worried about incurring injury as a result of his rest.
He wouldn't play again until Leinster faced Edinburgh on January 4, his 10th provincial match of a season that would end in July with a Lions series win over Australia.
It couldn't be more different 10 months later, even as the Dubliner was left wrapped up on the bench on a wet night in Biarritz on Saturday.
At the end of a week in which Joe Schmidt opined that Sexton had looked "flat" during Ireland training, the former Leinster playmaker travelled back to Paris on Thursday night, trained with his club on Friday before travelling to the Basque coast, completing a warm-up and watching his team suffer a shock defeat to the Top 14's bottom side.
Today, he will report to Ireland training, hoping that Laurent Labit's decision to leave him on the bench will allow him to regain the No 10 jersey and begin Schmidt's reign with a win.
But, if his season keeps going the way it has started, Sexton will have played 20 games by the turn of the year, more than double the workload he had endured at the same point last season. He has already played 13 matches in 13 weeks, spending 865 minutes on the pitch and completing 80 minutes in seven of the eight matches before the weekend's rest.
It is more than twice what most his squadmates at Carton House have been through this season, while his rival for the Lions No 10 shirt Owen Farrell had only played seven games for Saracens before his match-winning display for England against Australia on Saturday.
It is no wonder Schmidt is contemplating giving arguably his most important player a rest next weekend, despite the fact that he wants to get off to a winning start.
He will be delighted that Sexton didn't play on Saturday, but must be concerned at the condition the 28-year-old will be in come Six Nations and summer tour time, considering last season lasted so long and he had so little time off.
This weekend's clash with the islanders – ranked above Ireland, as the squad and management are so keen to remind anyone listening – represents the New Zealander's best chance of success this November.
The fixture gods have not been kind to him and, with a resurgent Australia and the best team in the world coming hot on the Samoan heels it is imperative to get off to that first victory.
But, as Schmidt reflected at Carton House this week, his prized asset looked fatigued when he returned from France on Monday.
As the coach explained, the fly-half has not been helped by a combination of things at Racing Metro.
"Depth in the club and a reliance on a player is one of the ingredients you've got to put into the mix when you're making those decisions and Johnny's a pretty important ingredient for Racing," Schmidt acknowledged.
"I've watched all their games so far and he's been super for them and so I think there's a degree of reliance on Johnny being there, particularly because (fellow out-half) Jonathan Wisniewski has been injured.
"Juan Martin Hernandez was away with the Pumas and so for those two reasons they've been massively reliant on Johnny."
That reliance has led to the St Mary's man playing far more rugby than he is accustomed to for a club who are paying top dollar for his services.
Sexton would have been fully aware of the rigours of the French season when he was weighing up his move last winter. The Top 14 starts earlier and finishes later than all other European leagues.
His departure has opened the door for others to follow, and there is politics at play too, according to Schmidt.
He has already warned Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip that a lucrative move may shorten their careers and there is a sense that, while Sexton is protected to a degree by his position, a back-row forward could be in for a real battering.
That said, Wales' Dan Lydiate has been rotated in an area where, unlike fly-half, Racing have plenty of depth, and IRUPA chairman Rob Kearney admitted that players will look at that as a factor when assessing whether to move.
Jonny Wilkinson is held up as a counter argument to Sexton's fatigue, with the England legend finding new life in Toulon after a succession of injuries that looked to have wrecked his career.
"(He is) probably one that a lot of guys are surprised at, the amount of minutes he has played," Kearney said of Wilkinson. "I think that is a big thing. You want to look after your body and prolong your career. More often than not staying in Ireland will do that for you.
"If you want to make a few extra quid – which is important for guys too because it is a short career, and few players will earn the same amount of money they do as players after they retire – if they are looking at from that side of things well then maybe a move to France is the best option. It is simple enough in terms of the two things you are looking for.
"Certainly if you do make that trip abroad to France you do have to be durable but, in saying that, if you go to some of those bigger clubs, clubs like Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont, with massive strength in depth, there is going to be a pretty good rotational policy there too.
"So you won't be playing the same amount of games. There is a balance between the two."
Kearney has resisted the lure of France twice, opting to remain with Leinster, but his contract is up after the 2015 World Cup and again the big clubs will come calling.
The concerns he mentions will weigh on the minds of Conor Murray, Dave Kearney, O'Brien, Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan and Paul O'Connell as they contemplate their futures over the coming months.
There is plenty of money on offer in France but, unsurprisingly, as Sexton is quickly learning, you are made to earn it in the most attritional arena in the game.
Schmidt will be hoping that Sexton's Ireland colleagues will look at the flatness of their normally ebullient fly-half and take note.
Otherwise, the headache he is facing as he prepares for Samoa could turn into a full-blown migraine this time next year.