Sunday 19 November 2017

Sexton pride in journey to the top table

Conor George

Conor George

"A very proud day for me ... an unbelievable memory winning my first Welsh cap. One I'll remember forever!"

The wattage generated by Jonathan Sexton's smile could have powered a small city.

Much of the talk in the build-up to Saturday's deciding third Test in Sydney focused on the decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll and the inclusion of 10 Welsh players in the starting line-up. Sexton's comments, made in jest, proved the players were well aware of the controversies.

It is too much of a stretch to suggest there was no pain being felt on Saturday. The two most poignant scenes of the night involved Brian O'Driscoll.

CRADLING

Firstly when he and George Smith, the only playing links to the 2001 series, spent a few moments catching up; and secondly when he walked the pitch cradling his baby daughter. It seemed wrong that he was wearing a suit and not the famous red shirt.

But things move on and, according to Sexton, O'Driscoll was very much part of the celebrations.

"He spoke during the week to us and was in the middle of the dressing-room there enjoying it all," said Sexton.

It's been a whirlwind few months for Sexton. He's scarcely had time to draw breath since returning from the injuries sustained during Ireland's Six Nations championship.

Since then he's won a Celtic League and an Amlin Challenge Cup with Leinster – "they were both special victories, especially for being won in front of the Leinster crowd" – is now a Lions series winner and two days after he returns to Ireland he will marry his fiancee Laura.

Mercifully, he came through Saturday's game with no facial marks – "that's important!" he said with a big grin – but even after the wedding he'll have precious little time off.

He and Racing Metro's other new signings Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts are due for training on July 29.

"We'll honeymoon for a week and move to Paris on July 24. We'll do a proper honeymoon next year hopefully."

The Lions' performance on Saturday night showed a greater maturity than the previous week. "We didn't panic when they came back to within three points. We stuck with the game plan," Sexton said.

"I was worried a little. It is easy when momentum switches away from you to let it affect how you play but we stuck with it and that dressing room is a fairly special place."

Sexton admitted to a feeling of dread when the referee referred his try to the TMO – "It would have been a huge letdown but thankfully he saw it wasn't forward" – and paid tribute to the team for creating the opportunity.

"It was on in the earlier move but we delayed a little and the chance was gone. It worked great the second time.

"I think we showed in our play this week that we were up for it but, crucially, we were probably a little better prepared. We were wishing the clock away last week and it caught up with us. This week we knew that it might be a case of grinding it out. We won some great ball up front, but we also played some great rugby."

It's been an emotional year for Sexton and in some ways he regrets not allowing himself the time to enjoy the journey to this point instead of "wishing it away".

"It's only now when it's all done that I can maybe look back and appreciate what's happened.

"I wish I had enjoyed the journey to get here more, but there's a good few of us who will hope to be involved in four years' time again," he added.

For now, Sexton is able to reflect on playing an integral part in the Lions' first series win since 1997 – "I watched that tour with my Bective mates. Little did I think I'd be in the dressing room for the next win" – and he can now enjoy the satisfaction of being part of an elite group.

"The big motivation as a player is you want to be remembered when you hang up your boots and you try to win as much as possible and do the right things as much as possible.

"Winning a Lions series is definitely part of that."

Irish Independent

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