Monday 29 May 2017

Sinead Kissane: Sexton's will and leadership can drive men in green to victory

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton arrives for squad training
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton arrives for squad training
Johnny Sexton believes everything happens for a reason (SPORTSFILE)
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Johnny Sexton believes everything happens for a reason. No doubt it was difficult to console himself with that thought as he sat in the corridor inside the Millennium Stadium watching the game on the TV screen in the corner while metres down the tunnel outside Ireland were fighting their way to a stunning win over France in the Rugby World Cup last October.

The sight of Sexton curled up on the floor on his own brought home the loneliness and frustration of an injured player being relegated to spectator status for a game he was born to play in.

When Sexton had to come off the pitch nearly 50 minutes earlier, he shook his head and put his hand up to his eyes. He looked disconsolate. He felt "gutted". This week he remembered that time when he was forced off in the 21st minute as "probably the hardest moment of my career to have to walk off the pitch". He agrees that not being there to finish that famous victory with Ireland makes him even more eager for today's game against France.

"I always believe that everything happens for a reason. So maybe I'll have a good game this weekend," Sexton said.

A few minutes after that win over France, Jamie Heaslip said the "players had made a commitment" to each other. This current Ireland squad is ultimately about the collective and the sum of its parts but it's driven by individual will. And none more so than Sexton's.

Missing out on playing most of that game at the World Cup is not the only motivating factor for Sexton today. After living in Paris for two years while playing for Racing Metro, this Test with France has become personal following remarks made about him including ones in a French newspaper about his personality and his time with Racing.

Colourful

Sexton was compared to the ego of Zlatan Ibrahimovic by an unnamed former team-mate while his former coach Laurent Labit believed Sexton "had the tendency to employ a strong manner and a very colourful language in the heat of the action. Sometimes it was on the verge of insult. At times Jonathan was really uncontrollable. When we ran players, if someone forgot his role he was capable of giving them a bollocking."

It would have been easier for Sexton to not respond to those kind of opinions about him two days before playing France but he wasn't in the form to gloss over them either. While he admitted those views were just "outside noise", he also conceded that the comments stung.

"I think it does hurt when it's not true," Sexton stated. "When they make up stuff about your personality and portray you in a way I don't think I am, that can hurt so it's probably a little bit more personal".

And just like that, Sexton also upped the ante on himself for today's game. Making a game "personal" is never generally admitted in public by players but, then again, Sexton isn't like most other players.

He's shown he's got the temperament to deal with external pressure just like he's used to all kinds of warnings from opposition players that they're out to get him in a game particularly from the French ever since he hit world-class level. Some may argue that this is all part of the game but Sexton's history with concussion makes it galling to hear.

Sexton didn't bite when asked if he thinks he will be targeted again today. "I think that's the French media that build that up because I had a couple of good friends who apparently said they're coming after me (in the Rugby World Cup pool game). And I met them after the game and they said that they didn't say what they said. They were just misquoted and it was blown up to be a big massive thing," Sexton added. "I made some great buddies over there (in Paris) who will be friends for life."

It was Sean O'Brien who warned Sexton that Michael Cheika's NSW Waratahs team were going to go after him in their game with the Lions which was a week before the first Test in Australia three years ago. O'Brien was right that time as Sexton later said he "had a prop lean on his windpipe to the point where he thought he was going to pass out" among other hits.

This time it's Sexton who is warning that O'Brien could be targeted today by France. Today will be the first time both Sexton and O'Brien play together in an Ireland team since that win over France four months ago.

O'Brien was man of the match in that game with 17 carries, 45 metres made and 12 gainline successes and they were just the stats. Sexton and O'Brien have really been driving this squad along with captain Rory Best as the leadership moves in this squad following the retirement of Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony's injury.

Even from an optics point of view. When the squad jog around the pitch at Carton House before the start of training it always used to be O'Connell out in front. On Thursday, it was O'Brien and Sexton leading the group.

"Seanie brings massive ball-carrying ability to our team," Sexton pointed out on Thursday. "But at the same time I think after the performance that he put in against France at the World Cup I think they'll target him. They'll be ready for him so we're going to have to use him wisely and maybe as a decoy at times."

At the opening part of Ireland's Captain's Run at the Stade de France yesterday, there was more talking than training. Along with Best, it was Sexton who did most of the talking as the group walked down the pitch stopping after every few metres to go through points from their game-plan and familiarise themselves with the pitch and surroundings.

Joe Schmidt and his coaching team stood away from the players for this part as this is where the players take ownership. The players listened as Sexton talked.

I wouldn't swap Sexton for any other out-half in the world. One quote from Labit last year about Sexton was that he is "someone who is perpetually putting everything in question and who obliges you to be constantly on alert". For your information Labit, that's what a winner and a leader generally does.

It's been quite the week for Sexton. His wife Laura gave birth to their second child, Amy, last Monday morning, the day after the draw with Wales when he looked in desperate pain coming off with a neck/shoulder injury.

"It was 24 hours I will never forget," Sexton smiled. The arrival of his first daughter at the start of a pressurised week of a Six Nations game against France in Paris crystallises even more just who he is doing all this for.

As Sexton would say himself, everything happens for a reason.

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