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Cranky, fearless, ageing but inspiring - Sexton is the right choice to lead Ireland

Johnny Sexton will go down as one of the best players of his generation. Now he has the chance to become a great captain.

Johnny Sexton pictured at Ireland's training camp.
Johnny Sexton pictured at Ireland's training camp.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

ON A WET, miserable morning on the southside of Dublin, Brian O’Driscoll made a mistake. There was shock and there was silence and then the sound of an angry shout.

Johnny Sexton was only 21 back then and the world still referred to him as Jonathan; his name yet to be prefixed with a list of titles – grand slam winner, four-time European Cup medallist; world player of the year.

He was cranky and he was fearless but also a leader. “Most guys who came out of the Leinster academy back then didn’t speak up until they had played about 40/50 games,” says Bernard Jackman, an eyewitness to the O’Driscoll incident. “But Johnny was different.”

This was the day they all found out. There were no stars stitched onto the Leinster jersey in that 2006/07 season, nor was there any real hint they’d soon be firing the kit-bag down to the tailors and asking them to alter the shirt design.

They were good but they were flaky, O’Driscoll telling them that unless they called him out on things, they’d win very little.

brian-odriscoll-and-jonathan-sexton O'Driscoll respected Sexton's leadership skills. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

On this day, his wish came true. A misdirected pass fell short not just of Sexton’s hands but also his exacting standards; O’Driscoll the first to be told.

The rest of us were going, ‘wow’; that lad’s confident,” Jackman remembers. “Fair enough, Brian didn’t make too many mistakes but there was something about that moment, the sheer drive that was evident in Johnny. For us, it was a mundane Tuesday, an average Pro12 week. But Johnny didn’t do average, not then, not ever. To me, it’s a superb decision to make him Irish captain. I’m delighted.”

Plenty won’t be, his critics wondering if he is too spiky for the role, pointing to his opening gambit in the third Ireland-Australia test on the 2018 tour, when he approached referee Pascal Gaüzère  with the bluntest of introductions. “I know you hate me but I’m captain now and you have to talk to me,” Sexton said.

Had he known his line would be picked up on the referee’s microphone, he would have been somewhat more diplomatic, although he also later made the point that the two men had history. “In a previous game [when Gaüzère  was an assistant referee], he had his hand on the mic telling the ref not to speak to me. That was probably not right.”

With this in mind, is it right then that someone as edgy as Sexton should become national team captain? Part of you thinks back to last year’s Six Nations. Watching Sexton then was is a little like seeing a rerun on Roy Keane’s final year at Old Trafford, when the old warrior’s legs had gone but his temper hadn’t. By Christmas, Alex Ferguson had Keane off the payroll.

There is a lesson there not just for Sexton but also Andy Farrell. Every coach loves a fiery playmaker, particularly one who has the emotional intelligence to know you can only say so much before your words and actions begin to have a detrimental effect. Stretch an elastic band too far and it snaps. Keep it under control and it’s a useful thing to have.

“Johnny’s a perfectionist, and a deep thinker,” Brian O’Driscoll wrote in his book, continuing the Keane theme. “There’s a bit of a Roy about him — world-class vision and a mentality that is stubborn and utterly uncompromising in pursuit of excellence and trophies.”

Like Keane, he’s been a serial winner, the alpha and omega of his province’s European Cup-winning teams, a 23-year-old boy who stepped off the bench against Munster in the 2009 semi-final, grabbing the baton off the then standard-bearers and carrying it all the way to Edinburgh for their inaugural European triumph.

Two years later, it was a different city, different opponent and different Sexton. He was a true leader now, referencing Liverpool’s comeback in Istanbul during the half-time coffee break, as Joe Schmidt and Greg Feek tried to figure out a way of curing Leinster’s scrummaging ills and overcoming Northampton Saints’ 16-point lead.

So by the time a third title was added in 2012, Sexton was projecting his fantasies of glory into the mind of every Leinster player. Yet they did not all want to know. Their walls crumbled and a six-year reconstruction period followed.

As much as the early success defined him, the barren years hardened him. “Any season without a trophy is not a good one,” he once said, prompting him to expand on his leadership philosophy just after he got the Leinster captaincy in 2018.

Once you win things early in your career, you sort of think it’s a little bit easy but then a couple of coaches leave, a couple of players leave and suddenly years go by without success,” Sexton said in August 2018. “So the lesson is you want to make the most of it when things are perceived to be good.”

Right now, things aren’t all that good with the international team, Japan bringing another chapter to Ireland’s book of World Cup misery. Some, with good reason, would argue that Farrell should look to the future, not just in terms of who he picks to play but who he selects to lead. 

After all, it’s unlikely that Sexton will be much use to Ireland in 2023, but the coach has his own job to think about and will know in the absence of Rory Best, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien, he could do with a been-there-done-that type of bloke.

 

rory-best-with-jonathan-sexton-after-the-game Best's retirement has left Farrell with a leadership vacuum. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s why this is a calculated risk. There may be issues with injuries – but Sexton said in today’s press statement that these are no longer issues – ‘my body feels really good, I’ll be ready to go next week’. 

More than anything, though, Sexton’s knee will not concern Farrell as much as his tongue.

He needs his new captain to strike a balance, to speak up, cajole and be brave, but also to be diplomatic. 

There’s an onus on Sexton, too, to appreciate that, at 34, time isn’t a friend of his anymore and even though he’ll be revered as one of the stand-out players of his generation, he has to ask himself how he’d like his team mates to remember him.

Great players are measured by statistics and medals; great leaders by their capacity to inspire lesser men to do things they never knew they were capable of. That’s the challenge Farrell is after setting him. It was the right – indeed the only – call to make. 

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