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'Johnny is one of the toughest roosters out there. He’s the maestro'

The Leinster man returns to Ireland’s number 10 shirt as they look to level the series in Australia.

Murray Kinsella reports from Melbourne

BACK IN 2013, when the Lions faced the Waratahs in Australia, Johnny Sexton believes Michael Cheika’s team had a target on his head.

Sean O’Brien had warned Sexton that the ex-Leinster boss would be sending his Tahs players after the out-half and, though Sexton initially ignored O’Brien, it turned out the Tullow Tank was entirely correct.

Jonathan Sexton with Bob Stewart and Dr Eanna Falvey Sexton took some punishment in 2013. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“[I thought] he wouldn’t do that… it turns out Seanie was spot on,” wrote Sexton in his excellent book, Becoming a Lion.

“I was hit hard four times, all of them verging on me late, had my ankle stamped and had a prop lean on my windpipe to the point I thought I was going to pass out.

“When I saw Cheiks being interviewed afterwards I called him a name I can’t repeat, with half a smile. We produced some cracking rugby.”

Sexton’s feelings on that 2013 game were put to Wallabies boss Michael Cheika yesterday, ahead of their second Test against Ireland in Melbourne on Saturday, and he laughed.

“I saw what Johnny said about the game against the Lions and all that stuff for the Tahs,” said Cheika with a smile, although we can be certain how aware he is that Sexton’s inclusion in the starting Ireland team is a potential game changer.

“We just need to play; if we start going out of the line trying to do that stuff we’ll get picked off so easily,” continued Cheika. “Good defence is about being connected. When you do have the opportunity to go with linespeed, you all go together because he’s smart enough to pick you off otherwise and he’s one of the toughest roosters out there.

“You’re not going to knock him about.”

From Ireland’s point of view, Joe Schmidt admitted there is nothing he can do to protect Sexton from the constant punishment he takes.

Johnny Sexton Sexton is back at 10 for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Eager to take the ball to the gainline before passing and a fierce defender, Sexton is simply always in the firing line.

“Johnny is not prepared to protect himself,” said Schmidt. “He throws himself into the frontline and he is 93kg and he makes sure that if people are coming down his channel, that he knows they are there.

“I have tried to protect him for eight years of coaching him and he refuses.

“He is courageous to a fault sometimes, Johnny, competitive to a fault but they are also two of the things that everybody in the team and the coaching staff love about him because he will bring both those elements to the team as well as that acumen and guiding the team around the pitch.”

Cheika appreciates as well as Schmidt just how important a player Sexton is, having coached him at Leinster when the out-half was first breaking through and stamping his authority on the province.

Having watched Sexton’s progress with Leinster and Ireland in the years since, to the point where the out-half is one of the best in the world, Cheika knows what’s coming at AAMI Park on Saturday.

“He’s the maestro,” said Cheika. “He’s running the show, he’s in charge. He’s directing traffic all the time, he’s a great competitor and he’s a great defensive player.

“Everyone talks about his attack, but he’s a great defensive player as well, he’s got a great kicking game too, so it’s just about being aware.”

Jonathan Sexton and Michael Cheika Sexton and Cheika at Leinster in 2010. Source: James Crombie

On top of all of those skills, Sexton is an important leader for Ireland.

Vice-captain to Peter O’Mahony, his ceaseless demands on team-mates and tactical acuity will be crucial in the second Test.

“That instinctive nature, clarity of thought, ability to read the game and direct people around the pitch, all those aspects,” said Schmidt of Sexton’s strengths.

“His leadership; he and Pete share the captaincy, you label one the captain, but when Johnny is there, he and Pete are great mates, certainly they are in green – I know they are also red and blue. Between them, they will lead and, certainly, Johnny is key to that.

“Pete will have his head down and his work cut out. Johnny will have his head up and directing us about.”

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Murray Kinsella

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