Sunday 21 January 2018

O’Driscoll and Sexton focus switches to Lions after a year of mixed fortunes

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

TWO of Ireland's leading lights spent the afternoon in Trinity College's Science Gallery, allowing themselves a period of rare reflection.

Brian O'Driscoll and Jonny Sexton would clearly have preferred to be preparing for tonight's derby at Ravenhill than mixing with the media, but circumstances have dictated that they will spend the festive period on the training paddock instead of being caught up in the white heat of battle.

For the Ireland captain, the situation is simple. He can't play, even if he wanted to. His rehabilitation after ankle surgery is progressing, but a return is still a month away.

Sexton, meanwhile, must sit on the sidelines and champ at the bit while his colleagues are involved in a derby double-bill. Declan Kidney has decreed that he needs a rest and, despite the out-half's protestations, he must comply.

So, they find themselves reflecting on a 2012 of ups and downs, but looking ahead to 2013 with optimism.

As Leinster and Ireland players, both men experienced the highs of Twickenham and the crushing low of Hamilton among the peaks and troughs of a strange year for Irish rugby.

"It was not the most fantastic of years, was it?" O'Driscoll reflected.

"Obviously, I missed the Six Nations and came back. I managed to be involved in a Heineken Cup winning team having only played three games and we had one near-miss on the New Zealand tour and then a hockeying.


"I've played six games this season and somehow managed to be on the winning side on all six of them, but then got injured and now I'm talking to you guys."

Sexton didn't have the injury woes, but he suffered plenty of mixed emotions in a roller-coaster year.

He was there when Ireland threw away their opening Six Nations game against Wales and collapsed at the hands of England at Twickenham. He played a full part in Leinster's run in the Heineken Cup, but then suffered the disappointment of losing the Pro12 final to the Ospreys a week later.

Then came the near miracle of Christchurch and the subsequent 60-0 drubbing at the hands of the same All Blacks in Hamilton.

"It's been up and down, every season there are highs and lows," Sexton said at the announcement that Lucozade Sport is to become the official sports drink to the IRFU.

"With Leinster, we retained the Heineken Cup, which was a huge high, but we wanted to finish that off by doing the double. We didn't, though, which was a massive disappointment.

"With Ireland it's also been up and down. A lot of games – some good results, some results where we lost by just one score, which was tough to take, and other games where we've just fallen below the standard we expect.

"The autumn games showed what we're capable of, even though we were without five or six Lions. Hopefully, when they come back we'll have a better squad and better competition for places.

"The first game of the Six Nations is going to be what it's all about. When you lose your first match like last year, it's hard to go for the championship."

As 2012 draws to a close with two Irish derbies that neither man will be involved in, both were looking ahead to 2013.

Although the Lions hype machine has been up and running since the season opened, it is about to ramp up even more as all of the Six Nations clashes will be seen as auditions for red jerseys.

If fit, there is little doubt that O'Driscoll will tour for the fourth time, perhaps as captain.

Sexton, meanwhile. has a tantalising opportunity to go on a first Lions trip, and the starting out-half jersey is within his grasp on current form.


For the St Mary's man, the key is to put the dream to the back of his mind, and he admits that the pressure that comes with the selection battle got to him earlier on this season.

"I have an ambition to go on the tour. Pre-season, you know, when I was training hard, it was always in my head – but that's good at that time of year," he said.

"But, when I started playing games when the actual season got under way, I was probably thinking too much about it. Now I'm just concentrating for Ireland and on the Six Nations.

"Hopefully, the other stuff will look after itself. I have got to try to put it out of mind as much as I can. There is a lot of hype out there about the Lions, which it deserves, because it is such a big deal, but I try to stay away from it."

First, however, is the bid to resurrect Leinster's Heineken Cup three-in-a-row bid.

The champions are on the ropes after back-to-back defeats to Clermont, but O'Driscoll says they won't give up until they know that they are out. Bonus-point wins over Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs are needed, and the experienced campaigner wants his side to go for it, even if he may not be fit in time to be part of the effort.

"Listen, we're not going to go down without a fight, you can be sure of that," he said.

"We're going to do our absolute best to qualify from this pool. It's stacked against us, but never say never and we've got to look at what we've built in our set-up and be able to think we've got a mentality now that we're relentless and we never give up.

"We'll see what comes of that in the end, that's really the only thing that I can tell you right now about our season, going forward, and we've got to stay in the hunt in the Rabo – if we lose more distance to Ulster this weekend we're not going to catch them again. So the big games keep coming."

They really begin in earnest when the Scarlets arrive on January 12. Leinster will be praying their talismans will be able to play a part sooner rather than later.

Irish Independent

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