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'It's an honour to do it and when he asked me to do it again, I was delighted'

Johnny Sexton has been reflecting on his captaincy of Ireland as the Six Nations gets underway again.

ANDY FARRELL SAID from the beginning of his tenure that he would be appointing his Ireland captain on a campaign-by-campaign basis, so he was clearly happy with the work Johnny Sexton did as skipper earlier this year.

The 35-year-old out-half has been named skipper again as Ireland head into a busy autumn series that will see them finish out the 2020 Six Nations over the next two weekends and then launch into the new Autumn Nations Cup from 14 November. 

Sexton is nothing if not deeply self-reflective and he spent lots of time during lockdown considering the job he did as Ireland captain before the Six Nations was put on hold.

johnny-sexton Sexton at Ireland training in the IRFU's high performance centre. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Leinster playmaker took time to engage with team-mates as he tried to understand what he had done well and what he could improve in his leadership as Ireland beat Scotland and Wales before losing to England in Twickenham.

And when Farrell confirmed he wanted Sexton to remain on as captain this autumn, he didn’t hesitate in accepting the gig again.

“It’s always a privilege and an honour to do it and when he asked me to do it again, I was delighted,” said Sexton yesterday.

“I wanted to make sure the guys thought I did a good job in Six Nations and I asked for some feedback around that.

“I think it was a good and bad time for the Six Nations to finish up for me. Obviously, I had a bad personal performance against England.

“It was not a good headspace to be in for a long time waiting for your next game, but it gave me a good chance to reflect on the leadership stuff and searching for that feedback – what I did well, what I didn’t do so well – and try and improve in that regard.

“I got some good insights and we worked hard as a leadership group over that time with Zoom calls, with different teams and different people, to try and improve ourselves as a group. Hopefully, we will see the fruition for however long I do it for.”

It remains to be seen how long Sexton’s time as Ireland captain goes on but he reiterated yesterday that he hopes to “last a couple more” years in the game in the wake of being nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Decade award.

johnny-sexton Sexton was nominated for Player of the Decade. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

“My wife texted me saying ‘Congratulations’,” said Sexton of the nomination as he brushed it off as simply being due his 2018 World Player of the Year award, a viewpoint that certainly underestimates his own achievements on the pitch in the past decade.

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He’s the kind of person who is incessantly looking forward and searching for ways to improve, whether that’s as an athlete, a rugby player, or a captain.

“There is some stuff that I need to do better, but I’ll keep that to myself,” said Sexton of the leadership before explaining that he need to ignore outside criticism.

“One thing is you have to just listen to the guys who are close to you – whether that’s the coaches or the team.

“There are some things that you might get criticism for, even when you get things right and make a decision, say if it’s to go for the corner or the posts [with a penalty].

“We made some bold decisions, especially in that Welsh game, and we came away with tries, but your decisions are still being criticised by guys who previously played the game and would have gone a different way – even though your decision has been vindicated by getting the try and then going and getting the bonus point, which could prove to be very important at the end of the tournament.

“It’s just about keeping it in-house, looking for the opinion that matters, which is the coaches’ and the other guys in the leadership group.”

Ireland did look back when they convened in camp last week, with Sexton reflecting on a “mixed” performance against Scotland before they “got things right” in the home win over Wales earlier this year.

jonathan-sexton-and-referee-mathieu-raynal Sexton continues to work on his leadership skills. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In that defeat against England at Twickenham, “there were some elements we’d love to take back” and while Sexton says they will carry the lessons with them, he adds that it feels like “a lifetime ago” with such a different-looking Ireland squad for this autumn.

With head coach Farrell still only three games into his time in charge, Sexton hopes this autumn will see Ireland’s development in attack continue.

“In those first two games, I think you saw the blueprint that Andy’s bringing in attack with Mike Catt and Richie [Murphy] helping out. We tried to use that shape and then make better decisions in and around having a wider game plan.

“That wide-wide was pretty evident against Scotland when we had the ball, we didn’t have it too often, and then against Wales people got ball into those wider channels much earlier and really well at times.

“Obviously against England we didn’t and they did a really good job of shutting us down and putting us under pressure, and now we’ve got to be able to learn from that – do it against teams that put us under pressure, still be able to put our game plan on them, but that involves kicking at the right time and putting the pressure on them when they’re trying to do that to you.”

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Murray Kinsella

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