Saturday 18 January 2020

Alan Quinlan: 'Johnny Sexton has unfinished business with Ireland'

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

"Sometimes in Ireland you feel that people retire before they want to, even if they’re producing the goods."

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– Johnny Sexton, Irish Independent, June 2018

 

A finishing straight in any chapter of life forces clarity upon you. It drags your true ambitions to the surface, revealing what matters.

Professional rugby players in their mid-30s have already shown an ability to endure more than most in a world where careers surpassing seven years are deemed above average.

The line of communication between body and mind has to be interrupted at that stage of your career. You can only kid yourself for so long. At 36, I knew my time was up, even though I had produced some of my better playing days in my final few years as a professional.

Rumours inevitably spawned in the wake of the World Cup, and we may only find out if there was any truth to them when certain players decide to call it a day and commit their stories to paper.

Johnny Sexton may well have considered retiring from international rugby when wallowing in the immediate grief that the New Zealand defeat inflicted upon him. But what we know now for sure is he is going nowhere – his inclusion in Andy Farrell's 45-man training squad and his apparent rejection of a lucrative move to Lyon have killed that speculation stone dead.

This is a clear statement of intent from Sexton. This is a man who feels he has unfinished business in an Ireland shirt, someone who has underlined his commitment to the cause simply by staying put.

Doggedness

And as far as I'm concerned, Sexton is absolutely right to stay. He is still the best fly-half in the country. Conor Murray may be four years his junior but it is the Munster man who can hear the creeping footsteps of the chasing pack. When Sexton returns to fitness, on the other hand, his grasp on No 10 looks as secure as Boris Johnson's.

There is a doggedness to Sexton that has always endeared him to me. I've always liked spiky characters who hate to lose, I find them easier to relate to. You don't have to look too hard to find the antithesis of that in the French club game and that may have been a factor in Johnny's decision to say 'thanks, but no thanks' too.

That combustible mindset is the same one that drove Ronan O'Gara to bark orders to all those around him. You'd spark off each other at times but collectively that focused the minds and built the intensity that was our oxygen for success.

Characters like that don't lie down easily. Sexton will have personal targets in mind: winning another Champions Cup and Six Nations, reaching 100 caps for Ireland (he has 88 to date), and making Warren Gatland's Lions squad in 18 months' time. And that might just be for starters.

Sexton will be 35 in July and his current central contract, which may turn out to be his last, expires in the summer of 2021.

By all accounts the Lyon talk wasn't instigated by him, but it does bring his situation into focus.

Sure, he has had a number of fitness issues over the past decade but that time out of the game might actually help him head towards the kind of age that Brad Thorn, Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter Stringer reached before they deciding that enough was enough.

In terms of miles on the clock, there is an argument to suggest that he should still be relatively fresh. From my point of view, I'm convinced that the various injury-enforced absences I had during my career were a big factor in me finding my best form towards the tail end of my professional days.

Since his return from Racing 92 in the summer of 2015, Sexton has played a total of 88 games for Leinster, Ireland and the Lions. To put that in context, in the same period Luke McGrath has played more games for Leinster (91) alone, before adding the 19 Test caps he has also accrued. Devin Toner, as another example, has played 112 matches in that spell – 76 outings for Leinster and 36 appearances for Ireland.

His confrontational style as an out-half may not be a trait that fosters longevity but so far he is doing a bloody good job.

Some may disagree, but I genuinely believe that keeping Sexton in Ireland will benefit rugby in this country for years to come – the standards he demands and wisdom he has between the ears will improve those around him even when his own abilities start to fade.

His own legacy as one of Ireland's greatest players, and his comfortable status among O'Gara, Ward and Campbell, to name just a few, is secure, and I'm certain there is a desire to join ROG, O'Driscoll, John 'Bull' Hayes, Paul O'Connell and Rory Best in the 100 cap club.

It doesn't matter how close Sexton came to a second French sojourn, the commitment to the cause sends a positive message that Irish rugby needs in a time of transition.

When French clubs come knocking you know you are doing something right.

There was a time in my career when Biarritz and Toulouse were testing my Munster loyalty but I am still proud to have stayed put.

The money is obviously tempting and the medals helped to justify the decision, but ultimately playing for your home province and country should be the biggest lure.

Having Sexton say that much publicly – without saying anything at all – can only be a good thing for Irish rugby.

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