Sunday 20 October 2019

Tony Ward: Johnny Sexton must be awarded World Player of the Year

Jonathan Sexton celebrates following victory over New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton celebrates following victory over New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

BACK in 1979, the concept of man of the match was first introduced to international rugby in this part of the world.

A company called Thwaites and Matthews were the initial sponsors within the Five Nations as it then was and for the four games in that campaign the half-backs – Colin Patterson and yours truly – were the Irish winners. At the end of that Championship, the Player of the Year was awarded at a dinner ratified by the five governing bodies and held in Lingfield Racecourse just outside London.

Again, mine was the name out of the hat and clearly the IRFU had prior knowledge that such would be the case as before travelling (along with Colin) I received a letter from Bob Fitzgerald representing the IRFU, or more specifically its Committee, that should I (or presumably Patterson) be voted overall Player for that Year under no circumstances was I to accept the trophy or even be photographed with it at or immediately after the presentation itself.

Weird and warped times in amateur rugby. And just for the record I adhered (more fool me) to the Union diktat with the overall trophy going from the presentation plinth to the Sunshine Homes organisation in the UK for auction.

I never touched nor saw it again. So too with the MOM awards that preceded the Player Of The Year gong. After the initial nomination (against the French if memory serves me right), Paul McWeeney (then rugby correspondent of ‘The Irish Times’) presented me with a carriage clock on the pitch in Lansdowne Road on behalf of the sponsoring company and the Rugby Writers of Ireland. On the back of that picture, I was forbidden from accepting either of the two awards set to come my way in the subsequent three games.

In material terms I couldn’t have given a toss, then or now, but the principle as to how we were treated and looked upon by the powers that be, specifically the IRFU committee in Lansdowne Road, stank to the heavens.

Rugby wasn’t just an amateur game in which the monthly meeting (held on each first Friday – a ‘jolly’ in Dublin for the boys) sought and succeeded in pulling every string but the justification was couched in the language of rugby being a team game.

In terms of the annual award quite how it was deemed to differ from other team sports at the time was beyond comprehension. But it was what it was and we as players, because we knew no different and only wanted to play, accepted that dictatorial nonsense.

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Fast forward to 2018 and a game unrecognisable on and off the pitch to what it was then. I do have some difficulty with the man of the match award within rugby and speaking as one who made that 80-minute call for many years doing co-comm to the great Fred Cogley, George Hamilton, Jim Sherwin and others on RTÉ television.   

The nature of the game – unlike almost every other team sport – dictates that the back three player scoring the classic try in the corner could not do so without the tighthead in the scrum or lock at the lineout doing his bit when securing possession.

In order to do that every other forward plays his part at the set-piece while those numbered 9, 10, 12 and 13 have a fairly relevant role to play too. No sport in my view has a greater ‘ripple’ effect. Put simply, the game does not fit seamlessly into having a single man of the match, certainly not in the same way as Gaelic games or soccer.

Picking the man of the match is a subjective, in-the-moment decision. It could not nor does it pretend to acknowledge the nub as to why a game was won. Indeed even that is a misnomer given how seldom the team finishing second produces the contest’s outstanding individual.

Player of the Year, however, the outstanding individual over the course of a season, is a different beast entirely. Rugby, not least through the Texaco Awards, has long adhered to that and the process involved. And yes even we were granted permission from on high to accept that particular gong.

Just this week Johnny Sexton deservedly collected the prestigious RWI Player of the Year Award for 2018. It was his best year to date and no individual played a more important role than he in bringing Grand Slam, Triple Crown, Test series success in Australia, victory over New Zealand, Pro14 and Champions Cup to this island.

He was and continues to be coolness personified. To be fair, in a truly remarkable season – the greatest ever for Irish rugby – Tadhg Furlong and Conor Murray trailed pretty close behind. But, for me, Sexton was the key piece in Joe Schmidt’s jigsaw and a most deserving recipient of every individual acknowledgement now coming his way.

Tomorrow in Monaco I expect the most fulfilling season for Ireland, for Leinster but more than anything for Sexton (on this World Rugby occasion) to be complete.

With respect to the other four nominees for World Player of the Year – including Beauden Barrett – any other outcome but Sexton becoming the second Irish player after Keith Wood to win the outstanding player on the planet award would be a travesty.

I may be accused of wearing green-tinted glasses but there is a precedent. Quite how Brian O’Driscoll was bypassed for Richie McCaw in 2009 still beggars belief. In terms of individual influence on team performance, O’Driscoll was everything in 2009 for Leinster and Ireland that Sexton is now.

And I make no apologies for banging the green drum in front of a panel of esteemed former players (including O’Driscoll) when asking how Murray (even allowing for injury since Australia in June) and Furlong were omitted from the shortlist of five. Man of the match may be in the eye of the beholder in the heat of the moment but Player of the Year is a considered award factoring in every possible element.

Sexton first hit my radar at JCT level in Donnybrook. My initial perception was that for a St Mary’s ten he kicked too much. But how he has evolved in the passing years with Felipe Contepomi central to that development at Leinster.

We have had some great out-halves down through the years and no I don’t include myself in that. But even when considered in such illustrious company as Jack Kyle, Ollie Campbell, Ronan O’Gara and the undervalued David Humphreys, Sexton has that extra perceptive sense. Never has there been less space on a rugby field yet the consummate game-manager assesses the moment so well or, in Rory McIlroy parlance, almost always seems to pull out the right club at the right time.

I’m nit-picking now but as our highest profile sporting role model I wish he appeared to be enjoying himself that little bit more and communicated with match officials more respectfully. But he is what he is and that for Ireland is the driving force behind everything achieved under Schmidt to date.

He is the head coach’s on-field eyes, ears and brain. Whether he is a more complete out-half than Barrett only time will tell but if there is any justice whatsoever in World Rugby then for 2018 Sexton will be crowned in Monaco for what he is – the most intelligent rugby player on the planet and by extension the most influential player in the game at this point in timee.

Rugby talent is in his DNA. Dad Jerry was my fellow half-back on the U-20s in Garryowen – but it is dedication and hard graft that has taken Johnny to this extraordinary point. Justice has to be done.

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