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‘I’m not playing against Warren Gatland, I’m playing Wales’ – Johnny Sexton focused on now, not Lions snub


Ireland captain Johnny Sexton during a press conference. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton during a press conference. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton during a press conference. Photo: Sportsfile

Two red jerseys hang side by side on a wall in Johnny Sexton’s house. They were put up in 2021 when the dream of a third died.

The Ireland captain is open about his Lions disappointment and Warren Gatland’s admission that he made a mistake in not picking him for South Africa ring hollow for the great out-half.

It’s no use knowing that he should have gone when he had to tune in from afar.

Gatland’s surprise return to the Welsh coaching box has brought that decision back into sharp focus.

From the outside, it looks like a classic revenge mission, but Sexton won’t entertain such talk.

“I don’t get to tackle him or I don’t get to do anything to him,” he said, before inevitably being asked if he’d like to.

“You’re trying to put words into my mouth now! I’m not playing against him, I’m playing against Wales.

“It’s his team, obviously, but look, what happened two years ago, it’s gone now. You don’t get it back.

“Of course, did it motivate me? Yeah. It gave me a bit of time to mull things over and go: ‘Do I want to go out like this or do I want to go out in two or three years at the top?’

“It was gutting. I’d saved my Lions’ Test jerseys and we had them framed and I said to Laura, ‘I’m not putting them on the wall until the South African tour was over because I wanted the three tours together, but that’s life’.

“Everyone has setbacks across all ways. You look at some lads. You look at someone of the calibre of Garry (Ringrose), he’s 28 and he’s never been on a Lions’ tour. Just with pure luck and injuries. I’ve been very lucky to go on two, but you’ve got to take the motivation where you can.”

Sexton has never asked Gatland why he made the call in not picking him.

“You don’t expect an explanation and I don’t like players when they give out about not getting feedback,” he explained.

“You’ve got to go and look for feedback when you want, but the Lions is something that is an honour to get picked for and I didn’t get the honour, which is what was chosen. It shouldn’t need an explanation. It should just be an honour or not. There were no calls or talks.”

For Sexton, there’s enough going on to not have to get too hung up on revenge. Yesterday, he trained without a protective face mask for the first time since undergoing corrective surgery on the facial injury he suffered against Connacht on New Year’s Day.

He points to a scar on his temple to show where the surgeon made his incision to save his final Six Nations campaign.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep that night, obviously. I did research on basketball players that had played a week later, seven days later, with the mask. They were allowed, but we’re not allowed wear masks.

“So once I’d read things like that and spoke to forward doctors, they were pretty optimistic and positive that I’d be back in no time.”

This is Sexton’s 14th Six Nations campaign and he’s won the tournament three times, producing one of its most memorable moments with his last-gasp drop-goal in Paris in 2018.

“That kind of atmosphere, the anticipation, the bus drives into the ground, the rivalries. It’s got everything really, doesn’t it? I’m as nervous this week as I was many years ago in 2010,” he said when asked what the tournament means to him.

“You don’t always get that with every competition, so it’s very special. It’s hard to win, it’s hard to do well in. Every single game is tough. For each season, it’s different and that’s what makes it so special.

“I remember going to loads of games . . . I just remember being at a Scotland game, the Scottish guy beside me fell asleep. I was eight years old and spent most of my time looking at him, wondering why he was asleep. Whatever was in his hipflask might have had something to do with it.

“But memories like that. Keith Wood, the air of excitement around when he got the ball.”

At the age of 37, he’s aiming to repeat one of his best tricks by coming into the tournament cold and delivering a performance.

“You’ve got to commit to training, you’ve got to train hard, train like each day you train is a match so you can make a mistake and learn. You can make mistakes that are with proper intent and learn from it properly,” he said.

“That’s one thing I’ve been able to do over the years, to commit to training properly because I want to. I love training, so we’ll see how we go on Saturday.

“I’m sure the pace of the game will be tough. We’ll be blowing at times, we all will. It will shock everyone. Not just me.”

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