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'Second best isn't acceptable' - Sexton gets the Ireland captaincy he wanted

The Leinster man says the new job is the biggest honour of his career.

JOHNNY SEXTON WANTED the Ireland captaincy badly. It has been noticeable in the games Sexton has played for Leinster since the World Cup that the 34-year-old has made a pointed effort to deal with referees in a calm manner. You could even call it polite.

“I fully agree,” Sexton told French referee Alexandre Ruiz when Leinster were penalised at one stage in the win away to Northampton, before questioning an earlier non-decision.

Ruiz explained that Sexton was wrong and there was a brief facial expression of surprise from the Leinster captain but he followed up with, “Ok, fair enough, we’ll clean up” as he gave Ruiz a friendly pat on the arm.

andy-farrell-with-jonathan-sexton-ahead-of-the-game Farrell has handed Sexton the Ireland captaincy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Now, there’s a time and place for captains to be assertive and aggressive with referees – Sexton certainly won’t struggle with that – but it felt as though the Leinster out-half was doing the last little bits to convince Andy Farrell that he was the man.

So has proven the case, with the new Ireland head coach yesterday confirming Sexton as Rory Best’s successor. Many felt the time was right to back 23-year-old James Ryan as Ireland’s leader, with the 2023 World Cup in mind, but Farrell wants to give himself every chance of winning this year and felt Sexton was the better choice.

Sexton is on track to be fully recovered from his current knee injury in time for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Scotland on Saturday 1 February and he is excited about his new role.

“I know that it’s a big dream of his to captain his country,” said Farrell yesterday. “I was lucky enough to be there with him when he captained the side for the first time in the World Cup [against Russia] and I saw exactly what it meant to him.

“He’s like a spring chicken, he’s unbelievably chuffed with being named the captain and he’s going to have some great people behind him, some great support.

“I look forward to working with Johnny closely now as head coach and captain. I’m sure that relationship is going to be great and we’ll push the team forward together.”

Farrell and Sexton are similar in many ways – demanding, determined, and ferociously competitive. The out-half gets on very well with England’s Owen Farrell, Andy’s son, because they also share many characteristics.

Sexton’s leadership of Leinster last season was successful and his promotion into the national team role will be popular with his Ireland team-mates too.

“He’s been a brilliant captain at Leinster and there was no dispute at Leinster when Isa [Nacewa] left about who the next man for the job was and he’s taken that over brilliantly,” said Garry Ringrose, speaking in his role as a PwC ambassador yesterday. 

jonathan-sexton Sexton is a demanding leader. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s obviously a quality player himself but the competitive nature he has just brings the best out of people around him. Second best isn’t acceptable, which is the mindset you need to have and he’s someone who drives that.

“Having said that, in any group, whoever the front-runner or captain is, it’s the people around him as well. In any successful group I’ve noticed over the last couple of years there’s a whole host of leaders, some more obvious than others and that’s what gets the best out of the group.”

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Indeed, the leadership around Sexton will be important. While second row Ryan might not be the official captain yet, his growth will continue as an increasingly important part of Ireland’s leadership group, which he formally became part of before the World Cup.

Peter O’Mahony has captained Ireland too, CJ Stander has been part of the leadership group for some time, while the likes of Cian Healy and Keith Earls offer their own forms of less vocal leadership. 24-year-old Ringrose is another man who will continue to grow in this aspect of the game.

But Sexton will be the standard-setter at the head of the leadership group, relishing a role he has always wanted.

“It’s a massive honour to be asked to do it and I obviously got a taste for it during the World Cup for that one game and I’ve done it in patches with Ireland in-game when either Rory or Pete have gone off in previous games,” said Sexton.

“It’s something that I enjoy and ultimately it’s a huge honour, the biggest honour of my career to be asked to do it. I’m really looking forward to it and looking forward to the challenges that are coming up and hopefully we can have a successful Six Nations now.”

– First published 06.00, 16 January

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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