Racing Metro employ me, that's the bottom line – Johnny Sexton
Writers' Player of Year defends club workload and insists he's 'fresh' to take on Australians
MUCH has changed in the world of Jonathan Sexton since he last wore an Ireland jersey – against England in February.
In nine months he has become a Lion, a married man, an author, a resident of Paris and the most talked-about Irish rugby player around. He has left the comfort zone of Ireland for an adventure and that has brought with it new challenges and fresh experiences.
It has taken its toll too, with the responsibility of leading the Racing Metro backline, and the workload that entails, leading to concerns that he is playing too much rugby and not getting enough rest.
His importance to the Irish cause is unquestioned and, even if Ian Madigan did a fine job at No 10 last summer and Paddy Jackson barely put a foot wrong against Samoa at the weekend, he remains the pre-eminent operator in his position.
For all of that, his club need him too. Racing are building from a low base and they spent big to bring his talents to Paris.
Sexton found himself at the centre of a tug of love two weeks ago when the Irish management were keen to keep him in camp and give him a rest seven days out from the November internationals kick-off, but his club needed him for their trip to Biarritz.
Unbeknownst to those outside the discussions, he had picked up a hip-flexor strain in kicking practice with Ireland that Wednesday, but travelled to Paris and on to the Basque coast the following day before remaining on the bench.
When he returned to Maynooth he trained on Monday, but was unable to do so on the following days, and Joe Schmidt selected Jackson in his place.
The player understood both sides' wishes, but acknowledged that the team who pay his wages hold the aces, and when they want him, he has to report for duty.
"I have played a lot of games but in fairness to Racing they know that I have played a lot and are probably aware that they wanted to give me a week off for a rest at some stage," Sexton explained yesterday after being named the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year for 2013.
"Look, I understood where the club were coming from. I was fit, I was ready to play, there was no reason for them not to pick me and they couldn't really have said 'oh, well he's got a game for Ireland in a couple of weeks, we need to rest him'.
"They don't think like that. They have to look after themselves and I have to do what's best for the club because they're my employers and that's the bottom line.
"It was a massive blow for me to miss out on the weekend. I haven't played since the Wales and England games in the Six Nations back in February. It feels like ages since I put on the green jersey, so I was mad keen to play."
Sexton challenged the perception that he has lost weight from playing more than double the amount of games his Ireland colleagues have played this season.
"I think that got lost in a bit of translation with the weight thing because I've actually put on a couple of kilos. I actually feel quite strong when I've been playing," he countered.
"In many ways, the season has just continued on for me from last year, that's the way I've looked at it. Obviously guys have had a break but some of them have picked up knocks, so there's not necessarily a right and a wrong, you just have to adapt.
"I've played a bit more but I did have an injury in the Six Nations last year and there was an eight to 10-week period where I was off. I got a couple of weeks away, got a break, got refreshed, so mentally I'm not too bad.
"I was really looking forward to playing for Ireland again, to play with the boys again; it was a blow to be left out.
"Now I just have to hope I can get back in and I suppose I'm definitely fresh now having not played for two weekends."
On Saturday, Sexton tuned in to watch one of the young pretenders to his throne kick six from eight and give his most assured display in an Ireland jersey to date.
It wasn't an easy experience. As the St Mary's man often says, he loves playing games, and the long absence since his last outing for his country is something he is keen to end this weekend.
"It was tough. It's always tough to watch, turning on the TV. There was not a puff of wind in the stadium, a dry ball and you wish you were out there," he admitted.
"I thought Paddy did really well. He was really composed and place-kicked well and controlled the boys around the pitch well. He did well, so it is great for Ireland that at such a young age he is starting to come through and show some great form for Ulster.
"It was tough to watch. Any time you're competing with them (rivals) in the squad you don't like to give them a chance, and he got his chance and did really well."
Odds are Sexton will be restored to the No 10 shirt this weekend to face a team he grew to know well over their three battles with the Lions last summer – even if the regime has changed and Ewen McKenzie appears to have restored some of the Australians' confidence since taking over.
"They are a team we know well but they are a very clever football team and we have to be ready for a couple of new, different things," Sexton said.
"They have a new coach, and we haven't played a team under his control. They are playing a good brand (of rugby) which we saw glimpses of against Argentina at the end of the Rugby Championship, where we saw them open up a bit.
"Scoring 50 points against Italy (as the Wallabies did last weekend) is not an easy thing to do, so they're hitting some form and we're going to have to be aware that this is not the Australia that the Lions played in the summer.
"It's a different team. It's got Quade Cooper, just to name one, and he can make such a difference to the team.
"They seem to have a really tight-knit unit and they're playing for each other.
"We're going to have a really tough challenge to carry on from last week (against Samoa), where the lads did really well, and picked it up in the second half. I think the consensus from the boys is we're going to have to pick it up for this weekend."
Having Sexton back will help. He got his week off to a good start with a gong last night, now he wants to make it through training back into green on Saturday.