Monday 18 February 2019

Johnny Sexton: 'We've a good squad this year, but it's not as good as last year's'

Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

For most of his career, Johnny Sexton managed to avoid these kind of get-togethers. Captaincy has its less glamorous side and tournament launches are way down the pecking order.

Sitting alongside his fellow captains, all bedecked in their full kit and trainers, on a stage with television presenters Joe Molloy and Craig Doyle; the Ireland star delivered a downbeat message as he focused in on the 2015/16 campaign when they failed to get out of their pool in Leo Cullen's first year in charge.

Despite reaching the semi-final the following year, before claiming the league and European double last time out; the memory remains raw for Sexton. Partly, that's because he and his team faced Wasps and Bath that season and they do so again this time around, with Toulouse replacing Toulon in the equation.

After the official business came to an end, Sexton reflected on the need to stay grounded after a stunning season.

"I suppose that's the benefit of having a bit of experience because I was probably, not guilty of it, but when I first broke into the Leinster team we had this period of success when we are in a final, or two finals, almost every year for about four years," he said.

"We won three (Heineken Cups) in four (years), we won an Amlin (Challenge Cup), we won a couple of leagues and you sort of think it's a little bit easy.

"But then a couple of coaches leave, a couple of players leave and suddenly you're years without success, so you want to make the most of it when things are perceived to be good and you've got a good squad.

"We've got a good squad this year but it's not as good as it was last year, so what's going to happen if three or four more players leave and get moved to (other) provinces, and suddenly Munster are getting even stronger.

"So you don't know where you're going to be and you've got to make the most of it.

"That's what the last 10 years have taught me, and that's what to try and get across to Jordan Larmour and James Ryan who come along and win everything in their first season.

"Stuart (Lancaster) and Leo (Cullen) would play a bigger part than me. I've got myself to worry about, and trying to keep Ross (Byrne) out of the team and all those other things that I've got to do to get my performance right.

"From their point of view (Ryan and Larmour) they're probably nowhere near where they want to get to in terms of performance, and how much better they can get."

"So if we can get them to get better and keep the older guys driven to want to make the most of their last years then we've got a pretty good group."

Sexton himself has made a strong start to the season having finished the Australia tour free of injury.

So far, he's started the games against Dragons and Edinburgh and he feels there is a lot more to come as he builds match fitness.

"The first game, against the Dragons, they're very different to what they've been," he said.

"They've got a lot of good players now, the ball-in-play time was maybe the highest I've ever played in a league game - 46 or 47 minutes, which was a lot.

"When you play the All Blacks you probably expect the ball to be in play for that amount of time. Now admittedly the intensity of it would probably be greater but it was a bit of a shock to the system.

"Then, against Edinburgh, it was a totally different game but incredibly physical. I don't think there's any bigger team in the league.

"I know they rested a couple of guys but the guys they brought in are internationals and big men, so it was physical. I'm not where I want to be and that will come with match fitness, and there's a lot of other guys in a similar situation."

Connacht may be the main thing on Leinster minds this week, but the skipper admitted the drive for five European Cups is underpinning much of their work in 2018/19.

"That's a motivation for us now, isn't it?" he said.

"It's a big driver. We spoke about that when Leo first came in. They painted a picture of what we wanted to look like in a few years' time, and having five stars would have been top of the list.

"Now it's about building on it. I don't think the motivation has changed. I don't feel any different anyway.

"I hope the other guys feel the same. It doesn't look like it. I think if you'd looked at the last few weeks, we looked pretty motivated."

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