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How wise words and Paul O'Connell's missing teeth helped Johnny Sexton strike a balance as captain


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Jonathan Sexton and Paul O'Connell

Jonathan Sexton and Paul O'Connell

Paul O'Connell, right, with Johnny Sexton

Paul O'Connell, right, with Johnny Sexton

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Jonathan Sexton and Paul O'Connell

Maybe so many people still look at Jonathan Sexton the same way they always have because first impressions tend to last.

The Ireland captain first exploded into the living rooms of the wider public more than a decade ago now, the screaming, stroppy young upstart upbraiding the felled idol, Ronan O'Gara.

The image of a cantankerous crank has been cemented ever since despite all the glory days in a position where every second presents a series of decisions which must be made instantly; and where he succeeds, more often than not, in surmounting the sport's brutish physicality with mental acuity.

It is an image that contradicts the reality of those who have gone to sporting war with him; those who officiate, however, have not always shared the same opinion.

Sexton couldn't control that perception; he could, however, influence it. And so he sought advice from some luminaries who preceded him.

His chief discovery was, indeed, that first impressions always last, as an enlightening chat with Paul O'Connell revealed.

"He spoke to me about one time he was playing against the Ospreys when Romain Poite was ref," says Sexton, referring to one of the sport's more enduring love/hate relationships of recent times.

"He took his gumshield out and he had no teeth in, he spits through his teeth! Paulie looks angry at the best of times, even when he's happy!

"And he was just standing over Romain. What he was saying was probably perfectly acceptable but the way it looked or the way Romain felt was maybe not quite right.

"Everyone makes mistakes in their game or parts of their leadership and I've made plenty over the years, but I'd like to think I've learned some good lessons."

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The out-half, accumulator of all Ireland's points during last week's opening Guinness Six Nations Championship win against Scotland, had to self-assess and crease the wrinkles of a temperament which could occasionally veer towards the intemperate.

Thomond Park, two Christmases ago, with Frank Murphy in the middle, was one such example; many felt the captain lost control of not only his team, but himself on a day when his side also lost the match; the events seemed to be inextricably linked.

"I played with Frank and I'm friends with Frank - and he kept calling me over," recalls Sexton, wryly now. "And every time he called me over, the crowd would go absolutely crazy. And then a couple of times I did speak to him, I had my hands out or I was speaking over him and I looked aggressive.

"What I was saying was perfectly reasonable and acceptable for a captain to say but the way it was portrayed or the way things were taken was totally different.

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Johnny Sexton sits in yesterday’s press conference for just a second time as Ireland captain ahead of the Wales game. Photo: Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton sits in yesterday’s press conference for just a second time as Ireland captain ahead of the Wales game. Photo: Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton sits in yesterday’s press conference for just a second time as Ireland captain ahead of the Wales game. Photo: Sportsfile

"So it's about learning those lessons. From speaking to a few ex-captains and talking about that lesson, I got some good advice around that and hopefully I've been better since. So yeah, a good lesson learned."

The greatest leaders often didn't have to communicate at all to render their presence - or annoyance; one frowning twitch of World Cup winner Martin Johnson's furry eyebrows could not only move red carpets but influence whistlers too.

Richie McCaw's endless lawlessness was permanently assuaged by a persuasive manner towards referees conveyed so innocently it was as if he were suggesting someone had stolen his wallet.

"Some of the best captains I ever watched growing up, they got the balance right but seemed to put the pressure on the refs quite well," says Sexton, opting to choose his rival skipper tomorrow, Alun Wyn Jones, for particular tribute.

"He is a great example. He has that balance right, where he has a good relationship with them but is able to apply pressure at times and sometimes get them to check things.

"So it is a bit of a skill but he's obviously done it for a lot longer."

Any singular advice regarding Poite would have been gratefully received by Sexton as the Frenchman takes charge this week; whether he is less confounding than compatriot Mathieu Raynal last weekend may also alleviate any potential stress.

"Yeah, there were a few things we felt that maybe we could have checked but look we had a good relationship which I suppose was the good part of it," says Sexton of the often inscrutably inconsistent Raynal.

"How I can get him to maybe look at things is maybe an area I need to improve. But he listened to me and I listened to him.

"I think Scotland said the same thing after the game, they felt hard done by. It always works itself out in the end."

This week should in principle be an easier build-up even if a tougher game; everything was new last week as the new regime reshaped the entire run-in to Saturday's kick-off; it was as if they concentrated so much on getting ready for the start of the game, they forgot to play it.

"We have been so set in the build-up to international rugby over the last number of years with Joe.

"Everything has changed and we are trying to do different things, like we used to meet up four hours before the game and now we meet up two hours before," Sexton adds.

"So everything was new for me, new with the captaincy. I found it busier at times but enjoyed it."

The more established routine will be expected to feed into a performance which might prove more capable of perking up the dull crowd.

"That's the plan," he smiles.

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