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'It's like he's got more time than anyone I've seen' - Ala’alatoa on what makes Sexton one of a kind

Former Crusaders prop Michael Ala’alatoa talks about playing alongside Johnny Sexton at Leinster, and settling into a new environment.

Johnny Sexton in action against Bath last weekend.
Johnny Sexton in action against Bath last weekend.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Jan 28th 2022, 8:34 AM

MICHAEL ALA’ALATOA KNOWS a thing or two about what makes a good captain. During his time with the Crusaders, the tighthead played alongside inspirational leaders such as Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett. 

Since joining Leinster in the summer, Ala’alatoa has added Johnny Sexton to that list, and explains what makes the out-half – who is about to lead Ireland into a third Six Nations as captain – stand out as a leader.

“Since I first started training with him, it’s like he’s got more time than anyone I have seen,” Ala’alatoa says.

“Nine times out of 10, he’s making the right decisions to set up the attack. The more I train with him, the more I see it. It’s impressive to be around.

I have been lucky enough to play with Richie Mo’unga but I think it’s a whole different kind of player really, the way that Johnny plays. He’s like three or four steps ahead of everyone. His standards are so high that if you are not on the same page as him, he’ll let you know, but in a good way.

“As you saw on the weekend (against Bath), there were opportunities that came off the back of what he was doing. That’s because he’s giving the right messages and making sure that the boys are on task for those moments.

“That’s what allows us to execute. It has been really good to be around him and learn from him.

“The most important thing is that he is leading with his actions first. When you’ve got a guy playing that well, you’re going to follow him. That’s what you want in a captain.  

“So, when he is giving messages in the huddles they are always geared towards what we need to do next. It’s task-focused so it has been good to be around him in that respect as well.”

michael-alaalatoa-scores-his-sides-sixth-try Ala’alatoa runs in a try against Montpellier. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was noticeable that despite notching up a big win in Bath last weekend, Sexton wasn’t always happy with how things were unfolding on the pitch, scowling at poor execution despite his team holding such a commanding lead.

It said a lot about the standards Leinster set themselves. Earlier this week, Stuart Lancaster was also quick to point out there is plenty of room for improvement despite the province dismissing Montpellier and Bath with such ease in their last two outings.

Having been part of a Crusaders team who won three Super Rugby titles on the bounce between 2017 and 2019, Ala’alatoa feels right at home in such a competitive and demanding environment.

“It feels really good to be part of but at the same time, we see parts of our game that we can really improve on as well. We scored a lot of tries but there was a few we left out there (against Bath).

If a few more passes went to hand, we could have scored more. A lot of potential for growth and we know that once we play the harder teams, the bigger teams, it’s going to be a lot tougher for us to get our attacking game going. We won’t have the same opportunities, so we need to execute in those moments.”

The tighthead has quickly settled into life at the province, bringing plenty of power to the Leinster pack and also adding a touch of attacking flair, which is becoming part of the job description for a Leinster prop.

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“There was a bit of a learning curve at the start and trying to get my head around the way Leinster play,” he continues.

“Although it is an attacking style of rugby it is still different to how the Crusaders play so I feel like I’m at a point now where I have a good understanding of how Leinster play rugby.

“I guess I’m trying to put myself in positions where I can have an impact on the game and get the ball in my hands because that’s something I really enjoy doing, carrying the ball. It’s been good, really good.

“There’s not a huge difference between Leinster and the Crusaders and what I’ve experienced in the past because Leinster play an attacking style of rugby. Probably the biggest difference is the teams we play against.

“They either bring more physicality or they will rush up on defence and out pressure on the ball carrier and pressure their skills. Then at setpiece as well, that’s been the biggest difference… Let’s say that the setpiece is contested a bit more fairly (in Super Rugby), whereas over here you need to be on your game every scrum and every lineout.”

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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