Monday 23 October 2017

Comment - Playing through multiple injuries adds to Johnny Sexton's legacy and underlines his toughness

Jonathan Sexton of the Lions falls down injured during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on July 8, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Jonathan Sexton of the Lions falls down injured during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on July 8, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Jack O'Toole

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you," once wrote author Shannon Alder.

Alder is responsible for writing 300 Questions To Ask Your Parents Before It's Too Late. Sexton is responsible for guiding Leinster to Heineken Cup victories, Ireland to Six Nations championships, and the Lions to a series win in Australia and a famous drawn series in New Zealand earlier this month.

Alder and Sexton are from seemingly different walks of life, and it's hard to say if Sexton is roaming around the streets of Dublin kissing babies and carving his name into the hearts of its' people, we'll hold our breath on that one, but the topic of his legacy is interesting.

How will he be remembered?

At this stage of his career the Ireland outhalf won't pay too much attention to what his legacy will be after his playing days are done, his focus, as it has been throughout his career, remains firmly focused on the task at hand - getting back to full fitness for the pre-season.

The Irish Independent understands that Sexton's delayed return to UCD next month is unlikely to be overly affected by the wrist and ankle issues he suffered during the second and third Test matches against the All Blacks.

As reported by Ruaidhri O'Connor, Sexton came into the third Test against the defending world champions with a fractured wrist, suffered in the second Test win in Wellington, before rupturing a tendon in his ankle during the opening half of the drawn decider in Auckland a week later.

Sexton damaged his wrist in the second half of the famous victory over the All Blacks, but strapped it up for the series decider. After the 15-all draw, he underwent scans that revealed a broken bone in his arm.

Despite his injuries, the 31-year-old played on before being withdrawn with seven minutes of the final Test remaining having led the tourists' comeback against the world champions as they secured a famous draw.

Joe Schmidt and Leo Cullen will understandably be waiting anxiously on his return to a full recovery, given how much their hopes of winning are tied to the St. Mary's playmaker, but regardless of how Sexton enters the current season, the Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand only served to add to his already impressive legacy and silenced any question marks that may have existed over his durability.

He probably won't entertain the idea of legacy too much at this stage of his career, but as Alder astutely notes, legacies aren't really decided by the individual, they're carried in the minds of others and the stories they share about you after your days are done.

So what's Sexton's legacy? Where do you begin? What do you include? How far back do you go?

A quote from Peter Smyth, his former coach at St. Mary's College RFC, certainly isn't a bad starting point.

“Even as a 17 to 18-year-old Jonno was out practising all the time,” Smyth told Tom Cary of The Telegraph of Sexton in the build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

“Come wind, hail or rain. Jonno has an unbelievable drive and will to win. Unbelievable. I haven’t seen it surpassed.”

15 years later and it seems that will to win has not diminished in any way whatsoever, even if his own body is the one that is often having to pay the price of victory.

And that theme of paying the price is certainly a part of Sexton's legacy, as for whatever he achieves on the field in his career, the amount of concussions he's endured will make him one of the everlasting poster boys for the issue in rugby.

It's an inescapable facet of his career, just as a 2005 spear tackle was for Brian O'Driscoll or a 2007 'Fear of God' speech was for Paul O'Connell.

It's actually a part of the debate as to why there needs to be improvements in the current HIA and return to play protocols in rugby; because players like Sexton are so competitive and have such a desire to win that they're willing to do just about anything to attain victory.

Liam Williams and Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions following the Third Test match between New Zealand and the British & Irish Lions Getty
Liam Williams and Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions following the Third Test match between New Zealand and the British & Irish Lions Getty

The pain barrier is simply that, a barrier, a threshold that can be overcome for players with the necessary mental strength that Sexton clearly possesses.

He's been widely lauded throughout his career for his ability to take the ball to the line and to set up his teammates both inside and outside of him, and while he boasts a mightily impressive 88% career kicking record, it's his defensive ability and willingness to not only embrace the physical challenge, but to try and dominate the contact area, that separates him from so many of his peers and from his predecessor Ronan O'Gara.

Sexton's career has been littered with highlights. A 16-point haul on his Ireland debut against Fiji in 2009. Icing the match winning penalty in the 2009 Heineken Cup final against the Leicester Tigers in Murrayfield.

Scoring two tries and 28 points in the Blues epic comeback victory against the Northampton Saints in the 2011 Heineken Cup final.

Guiding the Lions to a third Test win in Sydney by scoring a decisive try in a move that he both started and finished. Scoring two tries and 17 points in Ireland's 2014 Six Nations finale against France to win the championship in Paris, a traditional graveyard for Irish teams.

And now this summer, after playing one of the worst games of his season in the tour opener against the New Zealand Barbarians, and starting the opening Test from the bench, Sexton starts the second Test in Wellington and plays a pivotal role alongside England's Owen Farrell as the Lions secure a famous 24-21 win.

He then retains his place in the starting XV for the third Test, fractured wrist withstanding, and battles on with a ruptured ankle tendon in the first-half to play 68 minutes in the series deciding draw.

Matches are won by tries and points but legacies are formed and strengthened by the type of resolve that Sexton displayed against the All Blacks. A resolve that was identified in 2002 by Peter Smyth and a strength of character that was etched into the minds of all in 2017. A story to be told for years to come. A legacy that grows.

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