Friday 22 February 2019

'It was something that I wanted to do since I was a kid' - Captain Sexton setting tone for Leinster lift-off

New skipper’s role means everything to Ireland star as he welcomes the return of old rival-turned-coach Contepomi

Johnny Sexton will be hoping to be back at Celtic Park as Leinster captain for the Guinness PRO14 final. Photo: INPHO
Johnny Sexton will be hoping to be back at Celtic Park as Leinster captain for the Guinness PRO14 final. Photo: INPHO
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Even the world's best players retain their childhood dreams and after 10 years at the top of the game Johnny Sexton still has a few boxes left to tick.

He doesn't know why, but captaining Leinster has always been an ambition for the 32-year-old out-half.

Felipe Contepomi. Photo: Sportsfile
Felipe Contepomi. Photo: Sportsfile

Getting up at the crack of dawn to pose for pictures with his fellow skippers with the Guinness PRO14 trophy in Celtic Park is part of the less glamorous side of the gig, even though the Celtic fan inside him is hoping to grace the turf in the final next May.

The interview merry-go-round of the launch that followed was another less-than-appealing part of the role, but the experience didn't appear to bother the decorated playmaker as he and Leo Cullen moved from room to room at a Glasgow hotel to face similar questions from a different set of journalists.

Captaincy, it seems, suits Sexton.

"It was obviously something that I always wanted to do since I was a kid, supporting Leinster," he said.

"I don't know why; when you are a young lad, you naturally want to be captain of whatever team you support.

"So, we had a couple of conversations around how it would work, whether I would do it by myself, or whether there would be a co-captain.

"We discussed it, a bit, as we do and we came to this decision, and I am absolutely delighted and honoured to take the responsibility.

"I have big boots to fill with some of the guys who have gone before me but I hope I am ready."

Whereas Isa Nacewa had one focus for the entire season, Sexton's involvement with Leinster will be curtailed by his international commitments.

Although Cullen disagreed with Johann van Graan's assertion that he'll be seeing less of his Ireland players this season, the reality is he will be without his new skipper for large chunks of the season.

"That was part of the conversation that we spoke about," Sexton said.

"Obviously when Isa was there, he was the ideal one, because he was there all year round, he had the feel of the group during the Six Nations, in terms of how the group was feeling.

"I won't be there but I will try and ensure I am there as much as I can be for the games during those idle weeks during the Six Nations, making sure I stay in contact with the guys.

"There are ways of doing it. If you remember, Isa was injured for a bit last year, too, so there will always be times when the captain is not there.

"We have a leadership group and the group is more important than the captain. When Leo was captain, Brian (O'Driscoll) before him, there were always guys there to help him and I am going to have to lean heavily on guys, there is obviously Rhys (Ruddock), Seán (O'Brien), Rob (Kearney), guys who have been there for years who have gained experiences. There are some young guys coming through who have the potential to be great leaders themselves."

The skipper is excited by what his old rival Felipe Contepomi has brought to the table since returning to Leinster as backs coach.

The former Argentina international has been getting to work on the training ground, but Sexton reckons those players who weren't around for his first stint have yet to see his full personality.

"The guys will probably get to know him more when the competitive games start and he starts to get really into it," he said.

"At the moment it's all very calm, but the best of Felipe will come out when... I'm looking forward to seeing him lose his rag, that's what I'm excited about!

"He's been brilliant so far, excellent with the young guys, dragging them along.

"The older guys have learnt a lot already. It's brilliant.

"He's been looking at areas where he thinks we can improve and we've gone about trying to do that."

With so many internationals in the squad, Leinster won't be at their strongest for a couple of weeks yet but the challenge for Cullen and Co is to try and reproduce the stunning form that saw them claim a historic double last time out.

They've lost Isa Nacewa and Joey Carbery, but recruited Joe Tomane and their young guns will be a year older and all the better for the experience.

"You have got to take it away from the end result, really. If you think, 'Right, we have got to win those two trophies again', then we will get ourselves in trouble," Sexton said.

"If we can get back to the process of how do we get better from last season, and there are areas of our game that we can get better at - even some of the games we won last year, maybe we got a little lucky.

"We need to get better at managing those types of games. So there are lots of ways we can get better and we need to get better because you look at a lot of the teams who are here today.

"They have improved - signing new players, appointing new coaches - whereas we have not changed a lot, in fact we have lost a few players. Getting Felipe in was great. That is a big challenge for us."

He has been in a similar spot before when Leinster made their big breakthrough in 2009 and followed it up with two more titles in the next three years. And memories of the barren spell in between will also inform his leadership.

"This group is slightly different, there's some similarities - we're in a position where we've tasted what it feels like to win," he said. "But also, fresh in our memories, and for me it sticks out more than the winning, was the years before when we lost to Connacht in the final, when we lost those two semi-finals; so we've had a taste of that, we've had a taste of success.

"With this young group coming through, with some of the older lads, we've a good mixture of guys who are starting out and guys coming towards the end who want to be selfish and make the most of their last few years.

"We've a good blend in the group, we're at a good point now where we can really weigh everything up and make a decision as to how we go forward."

The loss of Carbery to Munster remains something of a sore spot for the champions and, while they're keen to move on, Sexton appeared a little perplexed by the nature of his exit.

"I haven't spoken to Joey much since he's gone down, I suppose he left in fairly strange circumstances," he said.

"We didn't think he was going to go at various stages and it was announced that he was gone, so it's disappointing from a Leinster point of view because we're not in a position to replace that player, but as a person we wish him well and hope it works out for him."

By the time they go head to head in October, the season will be in full swing.

He may not be around to lead them every week, but Leinster's new skipper is determined to set the tone as they look to double down on a near-perfect season.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport