What Johnny Sexton continues to do at the age of 38 is remarkable

The Ireland captain has been pulling the strings as cleverly as ever at this World Cup.

THIS HAS BEEN a good World Cup for the 38-year-olds.

Argentinian front row pair Agustín Creevy and Francisco Gómez Kodela have helped their side into the quarter-finals, while Portugal prop Francisco Fernandes was key in an impressive campaign that ended with a brilliant win over Fiji.

Romania’s Florin Surugiu started their best performance of the pool stage against Tonga, but there’s one 38-year-old who is standing out from the rest.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton continues to show world-class form as he moves closer to retirement. In fact, we’ve been struck a few times by the thought, ‘Why is he retiring when he’s still playing so well?’

Sexton is hoping there are three more games to go and that his career ends in the ultimate glory of lifting the World Cup for Ireland. If Andy Farrell’s side are going to make history, Sexton will be pivotal.

Because Sexton has been so brilliant for so long, it’s almost taken for granted at this stage. But watching him last weekend against Scotland, it hit home how impressive this all is. A 38-year-old out-half who is quite possibly still the best in his position in the world? It’s remarkable.

As we’ve discussed before, Ireland’s attack has become less reliant on Sexton in recent years but that doesn’t mean he’s not still the main man. The All Blacks know he’s a key threat to their hopes of reaching the semi-finals, with several of Sexton’s involvements against Scotland highlighting how sharp he remains.

Sexon is key in directing play for Ireland’s opening try after just 63 seconds. On the phase before the try, they’re playing from left to right as Sexton passes to Hugo Keenan out the back of Peter O’Mahony in midfield.


Even before Keenan is on the ground, Sexton is already calling for Ireland to shift back to their left.


While Scotland aren’t stacked with defenders in the shortside, Sexton’s scanning to that side of the pitch tells him that wing Mack Hansen [pink below] is the only Irishman in that 20-metre channel to the right.


Another reason for Sexton going back to the left is the fact that three Scottish backs are now ‘trapped’ either in the ruck or in the shortside, meaning it’s nearly all Scottish forwards on the left-hand side. 

The Scottish backs are highlighted in yellow below, with the other two out of shot in the backfield, while the Scottish forwards are in red. 


Going at groups of forwards is always preferable when Ireland are using their multi-option, multi-layered attack, given that they’re usually slower decision-makers and less agile than backs, particularly the tight five forwards. 

A few of the Irish forwards are working to get across to the right but Sexton calls for play to switch back to the left and moves that way himself. It proves to be a good decision.

Sexton’s movement is a trigger for Hansen, who now shows the kind of work-rate that is a common feature from Ireland’s wings. He sets off across to the left-hand side.


And as Gibson-Park gets set to pass to the left, Ireland have found characteristic shape.

Sexton [red below] is set up ‘in the boot’ behind a pod of three forwards [yellow], with a pod of two forwards [blue] a little wider, and centre Garry Ringrose [black] set to move in behind them. James Lowe [white] holds width on the left touchline.


This layered attack is a common feature of Ireland’s play and we see a typical sequence of passes to get the ball into Ringrose’s hands, with lock Iain Henderson sweeping the ball out the back to Sexton, who finds Ringrose bouncing out behind the pod of two forwards.


We can see Hansen sprinting to get all the way to Ringrose’s outside shoulder and his work is key, as is an obstruction ahead of the ball from Tadhg Beirne.

As highlighted below, Beirne blocks Scotland hooker George Turner from possibly getting to Ringrose.


Beirne doesn’t change his line here but he certainly does obstruct Turner ahead of the ball. The match officials don’t pick it up live, nor is it flagged by the TMO.

With Turner out of the equation, Scottish lock Grant Gilchrist is left in an exposed position and the late arrival of Hansen makes life even more difficult.

Ringrose recognises the space in front of him but Hansen actually points the way too, encouraging his centre to accelerate.


Gilchrist is worried by Hansen [pink below] and sits off, with Ringrose throwing a dummy to further sell the pass.


Ringrose glides through the gap, draws the backfield defender, and passes to Hansen, who puts Lowe away.


While this try highlights how all the parts around Sexton function smoothly and everyone has a deep understanding of what they want to do as a team, the out-half is obviously central to it all.

Sexton is soon directly creating another opportunity for Ireland with his clever play on the ball as they nearly score a few phases after a brilliant Beirne turnover.

Again, Sexton switches the direction of play as Ireland attack in the Scottish 22, this time from left to right.


Sexton has just run a dummy loop around Bundee Aki from right to left when we see him pointing back to the right in the shot above.

Again, Sexton may have pinpointed how Scotland’s backs [yellow above] are focused on that left-hand side of the pitch.


Sexton calls for Ireland to make a carry off Gibson-Park to the right, which Josh van der Flier does, while the out-half is moving across to the right.

On his way, Sexton turns back and appears to call for Hansen to follow him.


So as Sexton [red below] arrives around the corner to the right of van der Flier’s carry, Hansen [pink] is trailing and will set up on the inside of Sexton for the next phase.


Having carried the phase before on that dummy loop play, Aki is now working back to the right too and as he sets up in behind Sexton, he communicates with O’Mahony.


Aki is telling O’Mahony to run the front-door option off Sexton as he, Aki, will bounce out behind O’Mahony and offer Sexton the back-door pass.

So Sexton once again has lots of options around him just before the pass from Gibson-Park arrives.


Sexton [red above] has Hansen [pink] as an inside pass option along with Tadhg Furlong, while O’Mahony [yellow] will run the front door, and Aki [blue] will bounce out the back.

Initially, just before Sexton receives the ball, Scotland appear to be well set defensively.

Russell has moved up from the backfield into the defensive line and he is lined up on O’Mahony [yellow below], while scrum-half Ali Price can deal with Aki out the back [blue].


Hooker Turner has Sexton [red above], while Hansen is well-marked by a couple of Scottish forwards on the inside [pink].

But a subtle bit of smarts from Sexton changes the picture in a split second.

As he receives the ball, Sexton immediately steps off his right foot and straightens up, which in turn lures Russell [yellow] to bite in on him.


Sexton has snared Russell with the subtle bit of footwork, ensuring that the Scotland out-half is no longer focused on O’Mahony.

Sexton is actually staring straight in front of him as he steps off his right foot, further convincing Russell that the pass outside is not longer on.

But then Sexton turns his head late to deliver that short pass to O’Mahony, just as Price is reading off O’Mahony to Aki out the back.


Watch below how Sexton works his magic in the blink of an eye.


O’Mahony breaks through for Ireland and then offloads to the trailing Hansen, who just can’t hold the ball as Russell and Jamie Ritchie tackle him.

It’s poor defence from Scotland in the frontline, as on a number of occasions in this game, but it’s also excellent attack from Ireland.

Sexton’s smarts are key as he takes full advantage of the good work of others around him.

The Ireland skipper has a key role in the second Irish try which comes on first-phase with a clever lineout strike from the right-hand side.

The try that Keenan scores actually comes from Ireland’s second use of almost exactly the same lineout play, having first run it in the 16th minute.


Ireland play off the top of a seven-man lineout and Gibson-Park finds Sexton, who runs a loop play around Aki, whose pass goes out the back of van der Flier.

Hansen is once again working off his right wing as part of the play design and Sexton then has the option to hit Ringrose at the front door or go out the back to Hansen.

Sexton chooses to go out the back.


While there’s no linebreak here, Ireland do make ground with their lineout play, which they return to just 10 minutes later after some excellent wing work from Ringrose.

Ireland have a lineout in essentially the same position on the right-hand side and Sexton, who calls all the plays for Ireland, decides to run something extremely similar.

There has been a change in personnel at this stage, with Stuart McCloskey on in midfield, Aki moving to outside centre, and Ringrose shifting to the right wing. Ireland also use Caelan Doris as the midfield forward, with van der Flier in the lineout.

It’s van der Flier who rips the ball from lineout jumper Beirne as a dummy maul forms and then passes to Gibson-Park, allowing the scrum-half to get slightly wider.


McCloskey does an excellent job as the hub around which Sexton loops, with the Ulster centre carrying at the Scotland defence to offer a run threat himself, while the ball being in two hands suggests the possibility of a tip-on pass to Doris just outside him.

Scotland out-half Finn Russell has to respect the threat of Doris, as highlighted in yellow below.


Watch below how Doris gets a slight nudge onto Russell even as the Scot tries to slip out beyond him to Sexton, who is getting a beautifully timed return pass from McCloskey.


Russell is now playing catch-up on Sexton, who knows he’s outside Russell and so looks to threaten the inside shoulder of centre Sione Tuipulotu.

Sexton eyeballs Tuipulotu as he straightens up slightly, worrying Tuipulotu that Sexton could dart at the line himself. That causes Tuipulotu [red below] to hesitate from adjusting onto Aki in front of him.


Meanwhile, outside centre Huw Jones is already reading off Aki onto the threat of Ringrose [pink above] swinging off his wing for a possible back-door pass from Sexton, as was the case when Sexton hit Hansen on this play only 10 minutes earlier. Jones made that tackle on Hansen and it’s still in his mind.

But Sexton is a master of reading the exact situation and recognises that the opportunity is for Aki at the front-door this time.


Sexton plays the short ball and though Tuipulotu now adjusts out to tackle Aki, he’s in a weak position from which to tackle.

The accelerating Aki is able to dominate the collision, get his hands through the tackle, and offload to Ringrose swinging up outside Jones, who has turned in on Aki late as he recognises Sexton’s intention.

It’s a brilliant offload from Aki to find Ringrose, who then shows his composure with three Scots closing in to flick away an offload to Keenan just before he’s taken to ground.


It’s an outstanding Irish try on first phase with Sexton at the heart of it and all the moving parts around him firing to perfection.

For Ireland’s third try, scored by Henderson, Sexton doesn’t actually touch the ball over the course of an 11-phase drive but he is in behind his forwards, calling the shots as they overpower the Scots.

And it’s Sexton who provides the scoring pass for Ireland’s bonus-point score just before half time, waiting until they’ve earned penalty advantage before demanding the ball and floating a bridge pass out to Keenan.


Sexton lifts his pass up over Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe and as fullback Ollie Smith moves forward in the hope of intercepting just outside, Keenan does a superb job of leaping, plucking the ball from the air overhead, steadying himself, and accelerating to finish through a despairing double tackle. It’s a wonderful finish.

Sexton also had a hand in Dan Sheehan’s try early in the second half, as noted in this piece, before he was withdrawn after just 45 minutes of the game to keep him fresh for this weekend’s quarter-final.

Sexton ended his involvement by nailing the touchline conversion to continue his fine place-kicking form. The Ireland out-half has successfully kicked 17 of his 20 shots at goal in this World Cup so far.

One thing Sexton hasn’t done a lot of is kick from hand. He kicked in play twice in the opener against Romania, not once against Tonga, three times versus South Africa, and then just twice in the win over the Scots. Ireland kick off scrum-half a lot, while Lowe’s left foot is also key, but we may see more of Sexton’s attacking kicking this weekend.

He has been defending as strongly as ever, making seven tackles in his 45 minutes against the Scots after completing 11 versus the Springboks. As we noted in our piece on Ireland’s 18-phase grandstand last weekend, Sexton was heavily involved. 

While Sexton has looked more relaxed than ever on the pitch, clearly enjoying being part of this Ireland team, he remains as fiery a competitor as ever. 


In the instance above, Russell has just had an exchange of harsh words with O’Mahony following the Sheehan try.

Sexton calls Russell and appears to point at the scoreboard, which reads Ireland 31-0 Scotland.

Sexton is never short of a few words when he’s in the heat of the battle.

At the age of 38, the fire still burns as bright.

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