Tuesday 17 September 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Johnny Sexton's investment in his own body reaps reward'


Stretching out: Conor Murray going through his exercises in Sydney during the summer tour - his personal fitness regime has resulted in him playing an extraordinary run of games for Leinster and Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Stretching out: Conor Murray going through his exercises in Sydney during the summer tour - his personal fitness regime has resulted in him playing an extraordinary run of games for Leinster and Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It is two years since Johnny Sexton was given an extended break from the game to overcome his hamstring problems.

At the time it was easy to imagine the out-half getting to next year's World Cup and calling it a day whenever Ireland's campaign came to an end. His body had been through the ringer and he always appeared to be fighting to get fit.

Sexton relocated to the Santry Sports Surgery Clinic for a six-week period to get to the root of his hamstring issues after a frustrating run of problems.

When he came back, he hurt his calf in the warm-up for a European game against Castres and was ruled out of the first two matches of the 2017 Six Nations - including the disappointing defeat to Scotland in Murrayfield.

He came back against France, kicking 11 points in a 19-9 Dublin win.

Apart from the odd niggle, the Ireland out-half has barely wavered.

Ironically, Sexton is battling a calf injury this week but it seems like a while since - much to his own chagrin - his name was synonymous with health issues.

Since the 2017 Six Nations and the subsequent Lions tour, the Dubliner has put together a stunning body of work.

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In New Zealand, he appeared to go through a crisis of confidence and openly deferred to Owen Farrell as Warren Gatland questioned if he'd lost his mojo.

He played his way into form by playing games, coming off the bench in the first Test and helping to rescue a series draw from the start of the second and third Tests.

He played much of the decider with a broken wrist; but came back with his confidence restored and he has not looked back.

The time and effort he put into getting his body right has paid off spectacularly.

Joe Schmidt, the IRFU, Leo Cullen and Leinster deserve credit for affording him the time and space he needed to get things right, but the sacrifices Sexton made to take time out of the game and come back better are worthy of note.

Back in the dark days it seemed impossible to see him continuing past Japan but after the 12 months he's just had, yesterday's announcement that he will continue to play at the top of the game for a further two seasons seemed inevitable.

Now, it's a question of whether he will make the next Lions tour at 35 and if he might try and sign off with one last World Cup at 38 in 2023.

Few players get to go out on their own terms and even fewer prolong their careers until their late 30s, yet Sexton has spoken of learning from NFL star Tom Brady who has powered past the 40 mark.

Schmidt has joked that Sexton plays with little regard for his own safety and when he is between the white lines the uber-competitive 33-year-old never shirks the physical stuff.

But the IRFU player management scheme protects this prized asset from being over-exposed and offers him significant rest periods during the season.

They don't throw out lucrative contracts unless they are confident of getting a return, but there are no guarantees in professional sport.

The available evidence they have in front of them tells them that Sexton is worth investing in.

In 2018, he is the best player in the world and a player who has the intellectual capacity to run complex games with a minimum of fuss.

At Leinster, he is the club captain and most important player. With Ireland, he is a vice-captain and the spiritual leader of the team.

Team-mates speak with awe about how the team's playmaker is so willing to put his body on the line, about how the No 10 gets stuck in on their behalf and is almost always the most passionate man in the dressing-room.

Unlike 2012, when he left Leinster and Ireland to join Racing 92 of Paris, after the IRFU failed to come up to the mark financially, there was never any question of Sexton leaving this time around.

David Nucifora has taken over the contract negotiations as part of his remit and the Australian has done a stellar job in keeping the majority of leading internationals at home.

It is a significant vote of confidence in Andy Farrell, who will take over from Schmidt after next year's World Cup, and it also affords him the cohesion of having Conor Murray and Sexton in situ for the first two years of his tenure at least.

The news also opens up the prospect of Sexton breaking a century of caps, a marker that would simply rubber-stamp his place amongst the all-time greats of Irish rugby.

Given he was such a late bloomer in modern terms and endured so much hurt with injury, it is a testament to his capacity to bounce back that he has won 78 international caps to date.

Although Ireland are developing understudies in Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne, we are some way off a scenario where the No 1 out-half has a real rival for the No 10 jersey in the same way when he arrived on the scene to take on Ronan O'Gara. When that challenge comes, you can be sure Sexton will meet it with full force.

After returning from his hiatus in 2017, the St Mary's man was asked if the best years were yet to come.

"I think so," he said. "It's not for me to sort of say that. It's for you guys to write about and I'll just try to do my best on the pitch.

"I hope the period I've been through will make me stronger and hopefully I can get a string of games now and hopefully I'll hit my best form. I feel I'm on the verge of hitting good form but I've been stopped by a couple of niggles and I'm over that now."

He was right.

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