Friday 17 August 2018

Comment: Captaining Leinster next season could prove the stepping stone for Johnny Sexton to lead Ireland

Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Back in April, following Leinster's captain's run ahead of their Champions Cup semi-final win over the Scarlets, Leo Cullen was flanked by Johnny Sexton as the pair took their seats at the top table for the usual pre-match press conference.

It seemed for all the world like the most natural possible head coach/captain pairing to be leading Leinster, except for one thing, the club captain was also named in the next day's starting team.

As it transpired, Isa Nacewa had missed training in the early part of the week due to illness, but what we got that day at the Aviva Stadium was a glimpse into the future.

Answering whatever question is thrown at him has never fazed Sexton - in fact, the Leinster and Ireland out-half is generally one of the most honest and articulate current players in a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to gain insight from.

The 33-year old has always been a natural leader, but by his own admission it has taken him some time to polish up on certain elements of his communication.

That day at the Aviva, Sexton exuded a sense of calmness and confidence that reflected the mood of the group as they went on to demolish the Scarlets en route to being crowned European champions.

There was never any fear that Sexton would be thrown out of kilter after taking on the extra responsibilities. Instead, he thrived under the pressure.

During the pre-match chat, Sexton was asked if he felt like an obvious choice as captain simply because he is constantly talking to referees anyway.

A wry smile came across his face and as he looked to his left, Sexton was met by the same reaction from Cullen.

"Do you want to answer this?" Sexton laughed, whilst asking Cullen, before going on to explain what makes him tick.

"It's still a work in progress for me. When I'm not captain you don't have that responsibility of talking to the ref but at times in the heat of battle it can get on top of you.

"You probably saw that in the Saracens game, I probably let myself down a bit in terms of, you know, getting a bit angry or agitated by some the stuff that is happening.

"Or maybe a decision I see because I am close to it or I know is wrong. It's just about biting your tongue.

"Now I have a responsibility to speak to him (the referee) in the right way.

"Like I said, it's something I've had a handful of chances to do with Leinster this year.

"I've done it when Rory (Best) has gone off for Ireland. It is something I've enjoyed but not something I'm overly burdened about."

Controlling his temper in the heat of battle is easier said than done, particularly when you are a player who plays on the edge as much as Sexton does.

The incident during the Saracens game that he referenced was a moment of petulance and he won't need to be reminded that there is no room for as he permanently takes over as Leinster captain next season.

In Leinster, the players usually vote for their captain, which speaks volumes for how much they value Sexton's leadership, despite his fiery temperament.

Sexton is no stranger to captaining club and country, and he will relish leading his home province on a more regular basis.

"Johnny is a player and person who is always striving to improve and get better and he has driven incredibly high standards during his time at Leinster, where he has become one of the most decorated players in the game," Cullen said.

"He has already carried out the role of captain of the team on a number of occasions and we are very fortunate to be able to announce Johnny as club captain for the 2018/19 season as he is a player that greatly deserves this honour.

"He is hugely excited by the challenge of leading his team-mates over the course of the season as we look to maximise the team's potential."

Sexton has never been one to stand still and while he might not admit it publicly, it would be hard to believe that he won't have one eye on the possibility of leading Ireland at next year's World Cup.

Best remains the undisputed first choice skipper for now, but Joe Schmidt could look at his growing injury profile as well as his age as a concern.

By the time Ireland arrive in Japan, Best will be 37, and Sexton will have a full season under his belt leading Leinster.

Choosing an Irish captain who also skippers his club would seem an obvious requirement, but up to this point, Sexton has not been the man with the armband, despite being one of the main leaders in both a green and blue jersey.

There is no doubt that he still rubs certain referees up the wrong way, which he will be mindful of. Take the incident during the series-clinching win over Australia in June, for example.

Sexton clearly felt irked by his history with Pascal Gauzere, because as he put it to the French official at a crucial point late in the game: "I'm the captain, so you have to talk to me. I know you hate me, but you have to talk to me."

It's certainly a different way of going about things, but the more time Sexton spends as captain, he will grow into the role, which begs the question; will Schmidt be tempted to ask his on-field lieutenant to lead Ireland at the World Cup?

Time will tell, but as was the case when Sexton took his place next to Cullen for such an important game, doing the same alongside Schmidt may yet prove to be an equally good fit.

Irish Independent

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