Friday 14 December 2018

Australian tour proves Sexton is the real leader of this group

Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

He never wore the armband on to the field, but one thing is clear as the Irish team disperse throughout the globe in search of a break: Johnny Sexton is the man driving this Irish team.

When their bus belatedly landed at the Sydney Football Ground on Saturday, it was the out-half who purposefully marched his team across the pitch and restored order when even his coach looked ruffled by the disruption.

At the end of a long season, Ireland lost skipper Rory Best on the eve of the tour and Sexton was appointed co-captain alongside Peter O'Mahony. In the event, it was the Munster flanker who led the team and performed superbly over the series.

When, for the third time, he came crashing down from the force of Israel Folau's aerial challenge, O'Mahony's night was done.

Even as the medical staff tended to the prone player, Sexton had taken over, saying to referee Pascal Gauzere: "I'm the captain now. I'm sure you hate me, but you have to talk to me".

Thereafter, the 32-year-old was a constant presence on the ref's mic and while he has been criticised for his demeanour with officials in the past, he maintained good relations with the French official to the end.

Moments

As full-time approached, there were moments when it looked like the toll of the season's effort were finally too much for the Leinster man but he kept probing and coming back for more.

He missed a tackle, then threw a tired-looking pass and yet when the chance came to go on the front foot he kept coming.

When the opportunity knocked to give his side insurance on the scoreboard, he nailed the penalty despite receiving treatment after taking a huge hit from Ned Hanigan and carrying hard at David Pocock in the seconds before lining up the tough kick.

Although he is a man who speaks often of metrics, Schmidt places a lot of faith in intangible qualities like leadership and experience and he was happy with how the leadership group went on this tour.

Yet judging by his high praise of the absent skipper, it is far too early to write 35-year-old Best off.

"Rory is a pretty quiet leader anyway," he said before Saturday's game.

"He would definitely utilise Pete and Johnny a lot, so that triumvirate have led us through the last couple of years, and prior to that, Paul O'Connell would use Rory and Johnny and Pete and, in my first year, Brian O'Driscoll definitely to lead the team as well."

Ireland's young guns have hogged the limelight, but the leadership corps is in fine fettle with Sexton driving standards whether he has the title of captain or not.

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