'The next big thing is the Six Nations. We’re not thinking about the World Cup'

Johnny Sexton was named Guinness Rugby Writers Player of the Year last night.

JOHNNY SEXTON PICKED up the Guinness Rugby Writers Player of the Year award last night at the Aviva Stadium and it looks likely that he’ll collect a more prestigious honour on Sunday in Monaco.

The World Rugby awards take place that evening and after guiding Ireland and Leinster to a remarkable 2018, Sexton is the odds-on favourite to beat Beauden Barrett to the Player of the Year gong.

Johnny Sexton Sexton with his Guinness Rugby Writers Player of the Year award. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

A Grand Slam, Triple Crown, series success in Australia, and a win over the All Blacks in green.

The Champions Cup and Guinness Pro14 double in a blue jersey. 

It’s been an incredible year for Sexton and behind those collective successes are the consistently brilliant performances from the 33-year-old, who has been playing arguably the best rugby of his career.

His passing game is accurate, his kicking intelligent and balanced, while his decision-making and play-calling are vital to both of his teams. 

Sexton has delivered big moments like the last-gasp drop goal against France and many, many little moments that include his thunderously aggressive contributions in defence.

A co-captain for Ireland and now the captain at Leinster, the out-half’s leadership is vital too.

“It’s been a pretty special year when you consider everything that’s happened with the Grand Slam,” says Sexton, who last won the Guinness Rugby Writers Player of the Year award in 2012/13.

“If you got offered a Grand Slam at the start of the year and nothing else you’d have snapped someone’s hand off for it, it’s such a big thing and it’s been in Ireland so few times.

“But then when that happens, you reset your goals back in Leinster and you want to go back and achieve there and that rolled into the double, and then going to Australia and doing the job.

“It’s been incredible, I’ve had to pinch myself a little bit, but at the same time, there’s been a hell of a lot of hard work that goes into it. It doesn’t happen by accident, from a collective point of view, and it’s been a brilliant year so far.

“Now winning two games in November, and there’s a little bit left.”

Jonathan Sexton celebrates as Ben Smith is forced into touch Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

Though he underlines that he doesn’t spend any time thinking about individual honours, this month has surely copperfastened Sexton’s status as World Rugby Player of the Year.

He was uncharacteristically out of sync against Argentina but the Leinster man was, unsurprisingly, sublime against the All Blacks as Ireland beat them for the second time ever last weekend.

“It was a game that had obviously been on our radar, probably on our horizon since winning the Grand Slam,” says Sexton.

“Going to Australia was obviously a huge thing to do because we hadn’t won a Test series there in ages and that was very important for us but all the time, this was the fixture that you’re thinking about.

“Especially over the summer when Australia was finished, you’re thinking, ‘Right’. You’re looking at the season’s fixtures and thinking, ‘Okay, Six Nations, European Cup, all those big games but the one that sticks out is that All Blacks game, a shot at the best.

“And they are the best. They’re clearly the best team in the world and we matched them on one day and now we’ve got to keep going and keep ourselves up near the top for a while.”

Indeed, Sexton and Ireland are already looking forward, but not too far.

While the rest of us may be discussing next year’s World Cup on a daily and weekly basis, Sexton and his team-mates are focusing on completing a November clean sweep against the US on Saturday, and will then turn their attention towards the Six Nations.

“I know people are almost kind of bypassing it [the Six Nations] but we’re certainly not as players,” says Sexton.

“We’re defending champions and we want to do that again. That’s the next big thing for us with Ireland.

Johnny Sexton runs back after kicking a penalty Sexton after kicking a penalty against the All Blacks. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“Obviously we’ll be going back to our clubs in between and we’ll be concentrating on that but from an Irish point of view, the next big thing for us is the Six Nations.

“We’re not thinking about the World Cup. A lot of people in the public want to drag us there straight away and start talking about it but it’s Six Nations for us now and backing things up a bit and trying to go and achieve something there.”

The next fortnight will provide us with an answer as to whether Joe Schmidt will stay on as Ireland head coach beyond the World Cup, with Sexton among those hoping the Kiwi remains where he is.

Sexton and Schmidt have formed a close working relationship since Schmidt’s arrival at Leinster in 2010, but the out-half insists he has no insight into what’s coming.

“If he decides to go, he’s left an unbelievable mark on Irish rugby. If he decides to stay, he’ll continue to do so,” says Sexton.

“He’s got a lot of good young players coming through that he’ll be able to build a new team with. Look, we’ll see, he hasn’t given us any indication.

“He’s a pretty focused guy on what’s important and what’s important was obviously New Zealand. This week he’ll be focusing on America and then he’ll announce it and it will be a big story whatever happens.

“But we don’t have a clue what’s going to happen.”

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