Sunday 15 September 2019

Rúaidhri O'Connor: 'Sexton earns deserved reward for a stellar season'

Awards might not be his thing but when out-half retires he will cherish this honour

World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton is an ardent critic of the proposed plans
World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton is an ardent critic of the proposed plans

Rúaidhri O'Connor

Johnny Sexton is keen not to get carried away with awards season, but last night's win was deserved recognition of the out-half's stunning contribution to Ireland's golden year.

His role in the squad is vice-captain - captain Rory Best even read out his acceptance speech last night after Sexton's voice went - but the Lions out-half is the spiritual leader of a team that relentlessly dominated 2018; winning 11 of their 12 matches and claiming the Grand Slam, a series win over Australia and a first home victory over New Zealand in an unbeaten November.

The one loss, the opening Test in Brisbane, came with Sexton on the bench as Joey Carbery was afforded an opportunity to start a big game.

Sexton's understudy did well and was by no means at fault for the result, but there is a calm assurance about the way the experienced Leinster man conducts his business that seeps into every aspect of the team's performance.

That the decision-making calm is part of a warrior make-up like Sexton's makes his mix all the more potent.

Nobody on the Irish team puts their body on the line more frequently than the No 10 whose disregard for his own welfare has caused his coach exasperation.

Johnny Sexton celebrates Ireland’s win over New Zeland last week – last night he was celebrating again after being named World Rugby Player of the Year. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton celebrates Ireland’s win over New Zeland last week – last night he was celebrating again after being named World Rugby Player of the Year. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Sexton embodies the old cliché about having fire in the belly and ice in the brain.

He served up his most iconic moment first, driving the team through 41 phases from their own '22 into French territory at the Stade de France before delivering an inch-perfect, long-range drop-goal to rescue a last-minute win that got the ball rolling.

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Having worked so hard to get his body right, he was at the forefront of the run to that Grand Slam win in Twickenham; conducting the orchestra during a first half that must rank as one of the most complete performances by any Irish team.

With the pressure on, the 33-year-old dictated the game. He often appears to be operating a couple of phases ahead of everyone else in a system designed to fatigue opponents through keeping possession.

He followed up the Six Nations success by guiding Leinster to the Champions Cup and Guinness PRO14 double. It was no surprise when his leadership qualities were finally recognised with the captaincy this season.

With Peter O'Mahony off injured, it was Sexton who skippered Ireland in a dramatic decider in Sydney as the tourists stormed back from 1-0 to claim the series.

And in November, he was again in fine form as he faced Beauden Barrett, his main rival for last night's award, and guided his side to a victory that sets them up nicely for 2019.

Barrett held this award for the last two seasons and didn't have a bad year, but Sexton's achievements have been matched by his performances.

Rieko Ioane and Springbok pair Malcolm Marx and Faf de Klerk had good seasons too, but none could match the level of achievement of the Ireland out-half.

He deserved his night of glitz and glamour in Monte Carlo on a night Ireland won Team of the Year and Joe Schmidt Coach of the Year.

The black-tie function might not be his idea of a good time, while he prizes team wins over individual awards based on opinion, but when he eventually retires the out-half will cherish the day a group of former internationals bestowed this honour on him.

"Awards are obviously very nice to win," he said after being recognised by the Rugby Writers of Ireland during the week.

"You'd be lying if you said you're not happy after it but it's not something you set out to win because at the end of the day it's opinion.

"Like, not everyone will have chosen me for this award, that's opinion and the best thing about having success is that no-one can ever take that away from you.

"No-one can say, 'he didn't win that', I can say, 'yes, I did win that trophy'. That's the best thing about winning, it's not opinion, it's fact. These are nice awards but they're not going to be unanimous decisions, whatever award it is.

"But look, I'm very privileged and honoured to receive it."

Keith Wood is the only previous Irish winner and most feel that Brian O'Driscoll should have won it in 2009.

In Irish rugby history, Sexton is in that kind of company and right now he is deservedly recognised as the best player in the world.

Irish Independent

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