Sunday 19 November 2017

'Johnny and I go back a long way, we were team-mates together for a long time, we were always intimidated by Johnny'

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen in conversation with Jonathan Sexton
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen in conversation with Jonathan Sexton
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Tonight at the RDS, Johnny Sexton returns to the place he belongs. Centre stage.

Back in blue with his reputation enhanced by a warrior-like effort with the Lions in New Zealand, the 31-year-old general takes official control of his side as they take on Edinburgh.

Although he has long been a key leader in the ranks, the armband is rarely assigned to the out-half who captains the province for only the third time.

If he manages nine points tonight he will become Leinster's all-time top scorer, surpassing Felipe Contepomi's record of 1,225 and will etch his name in the record books.

Tonight marks the beginning of the season proper, even Leo Cullen admitted as much yesterday, and the presence of four Lions in Leinster's team is a mark of that.

On his last appearance at this venue, Sexton appeared to be in the grip of a loss of confidence as the Scarlets ransacked Leinster's fortress.

His capacity to bounce back from that mini crisis and recover from a poor start on tour to take a central role in the series draw with the All Blacks was one of the stories of the summer.

While nobody is expecting him to take up right where he left off, there is not much room to grow into the season.

Read more: Stuttering Connacht hope to avoid more red faces against Scarlets

Edinburgh are quickly followed by Munster at the Aviva Stadium and then comes Europe with all of Leinster's pool rivals flying high.

With difficult games coming thick and fast Johnny Sexton doesn’t have much room to grow into the season. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
With difficult games coming thick and fast Johnny Sexton doesn’t have much room to grow into the season. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

After an inexperienced line-up conceded five tries in Bloemfontein last week, Cullen is hoping that his stand-in skipper will be able to bring his high standards to bear from early on.

"Someone like Johnny has been around, he's done a hell of a lot in the game and he's got an amazing mind as well," the coach said.

"Isa is captain of the club and carries out a similar role, he's got unbelievable experience and actually been both sides of it having gone back and had a coaching role with the Blues.

"Those guys are great drivers, Johnny is captain of the team tomorrow and the experience he has, the Lions tours he's been on, the Ireland games he's played, with Leinster and even his experiences in France as well gives him incredible experience.

"Great teams have great leaders more often or not and yeah, they've a huge say in how the team is run and rightly so."

For most of Sexton's Leinster career, Cullen was his captain but when he landed back from his two-year stint in Paris the dynamic was shifted and the skipper had become head coach.

During a difficult first season in which the province struggled badly, the out-half spoke up about the cultural slippage that had taken place since Joe Schmidt had moved to Ireland - words that made life uncomfortable for the head man.

Last year represented an improvement, even if there was no silverware at the end of it, and Cullen says that the oft-outspoken play-maker is a positive presence who drives standards.

"Johnny and I go back a long way, we were team-mates together for a long time, we were always intimidated by Johnny," he said with a wide smile yesterday.

"He's unbelievably passionate about the team, about us all getting better and getting better himself.

It took him a while to get into the team, you think back to the days when he was fighting it out with Felipe and he had his little snippets in the team.

"The way the seasons are, there are always ups and downs and people slip in and out of form but Johnny wants to improve all the time, he has shown that over his career.

"What he did in New Zealand, the impact he had in the second and third Tests. It's huge.

"He has a lot of support in the group. There are a lot of leaders in the team. Even Isa, the relationship they have is very close.

"Johnny hasn't actually captained the team as much as people would think.

"It is a big step for him, a good step in his development and I'm looking forward to seeing him out there."

Part of the reason that Sexton has not been handed the captaincy for club and country in the past is the fact that as goal-kicker and play-maker he has more than enough on his plate already.

There is also his relationship and manner with referees which he has accepted needs to improve.

"It's part of my game or personality that I need to work on. I've been working on it for the last 10 years so it's been going really well," he said before the Lions' second Test in Wellington last summer after he had been warned by referee Jaco Peyper about waving his arms in the officials' direction.

"As he's getting older, he's evolving all the time," Cullen said of the ever-maturing Sexton.

He's 100pc Leinster and he wants Leinster to win and do well. You can never question him on that. He has amazing drive to get better whether it is with Leinster or with Ireland.

"We're lucky to have him here in Ireland is the way I look at it."

With Jamie Heaslip sidelined for the foreseeable future and Nacewa out with a calf problem, the onus is on Sexton to stay fit and drive Leinster's early-season effort. As long as he's there, they're in safe hands.

 

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