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Contepomi: 'Sexton is one of those players that doesn't come around often, so we need to enjoy him'

‘When you talk to a friend or colleague of Messi, they say ‘he’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave’… that’s Johnny.’

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’M NOT USED to talking about personal names of players,” says Felipe Contepomi.

But Johnny is Johnny.  In Irish rugby there is not much room for confusion about the omitted surname.

Ireland’s out-half is an all-encompassing presence for club and country, his drive and will to win pours out in unmistakable floods on the field. Off it, the fire is merely dimmed as the 33-year-old naturally slips into the driver’s seat to control a variety of elements in his team’s attack and back-line play. His senior status also gives his opinion considerable weight when it comes to broader issues in the organisation.

It annoys him and his coaches, yet it speaks volumes that so much of the in-season discourse around the St Mary’s clubman revolves around his fitness, durability and what on earth Leinster or Ireland would do without him.

But of course, Leinster are well aware how they cope without their chief playmaker. Not just from the two years of his sojourn in Paris, but by the nature of IRFU contracts and player management.

Johnny Sexton Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Part of the reason the departure of Joey Carbery hurt Leinster so much is that no other team can offer so much rugby to their back-up 10, theoretically at least.

In the 2016/17 season, the two-time Lion played 10 times for his native province, last season’s double success took him to 12 appearances. What’s rare is wonderful. So having returned to coach his one-time protegee, Contepomi stresses the value in enjoying Johnny Sexton while we all still have the chance to watch him play.

“I’m not saying anything new. He’s one of those players that doesn’t come around that often. So the time we have him, we need to enjoy him and we need to appreciate that.

“I enjoyed playing with Johnny a lot, I’ve enjoyed watching him play for Leinster and for Ireland a lot, and hopefully – I’m sure – I’ll enjoy coaching him a lot.”

“We are lucky to have that sort of player in our team and just enjoy him as much as we can, the time we have him.

“And also the time that he’s not there, (he) is giving possibilities for others to develop, all the young 10s coming through. And I think for Leinster having a player like Johnny in the squad, being the captain, you can’t ask for more.

“Even if he plays two games, one game, 10 games – it’s like having the best player in the world, or one of the best with Beauden Barrett. Pick your choice!”

Brian O'Driscoll, Felipe Contepomi and Jonathan Sexton Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having left Leinster when Sexton was still effectively an understudy – albeit one who stepped in to win a Heineken Cup semi-final and final – the difference is stark for the Argentine’s return 10 years later.

What has remained consistent is the work Sexton lays down in a continual push for higher standards.

“We could see his high standards coming through, but what is more impressive, and it’s what makes him the guy he is… (he has) kept those high standards, expectations and hard work all through. And that’s what makes him…

“Everyone speaks about Messi, but when you talk to a friend or colleague of Messi, they say ‘he’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave’.

“So you have that talent, but you have to back it up with hard work, and that’s Johnny. He’s a talented footballer, but definitely, when you see him the way he’s been all his professional career, the way he behaves, that’s what made him become a different player.”

At this stage of Sexton’s career, he doesn’t require much coaching. Contepomi will be needed more by the young pretenders — like Ciaran Frawley, Ross and Harry Byrne — vying to be front of the queue when Sexton is unavailable to Leo Cullen. In that duty, Contepomi will point to Sexton’s example as he stresses the value of work ethic as aims to bring a fresh voice to a coaching ticket with two trophies freshly lodged in the cabinet.

“Having the best facilities doesn’t make you a better player or a better club. You have to put in the hard work behind.

“If you don’t have that hard work and don’t work hard every day to get better you can have the best facilities and it won’t happen. But definitely having good facilities helps.

“I always say that we human beings, we adapt to our environment. I have seen Argentinean people dropping a paper in Buenos Aires and when they arrive in London they don’t drop it. The same guy, why?

Felipe Contepomi and Jonathan Sexton after the match Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Because no one beside him drops it. In Buenos Aires everyone drops the paper on the floor so you adapt to your environment. If you have a better environment definitely you will have better chances to get into your potential but the environment is done by infrastructure, culture and the people. The people drive that environment. It’s many things that make you a better player.

“Getting into a team which just won two cups, you just have to keep working harder to get better because you are now the team which everyone wants to beat because you are the best in Europe and the best in Pro14. You need to get better in every game so you keep progressing because teams will get better.

“Hopefully I can bring something they don’t have, but for me it’s about hard work and trying to be creative, innovative and progressive. Not just to be in the comfort zone, that ‘because it worked last year, it will work next year’.

“You need to keep changing and getting something new and trying to be creative. For me it’s about hard work. You need a bit of luck, but the harder you work the more you have luck on your side.”

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Sean Farrell

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