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'The day I don’t feel threatened, I’ll know it’s time for me to hang up the boots'

Johnny Sexton had a few regrets in the leadership department after Ireland’s defeat in Paris.

Sexton will captain Ireland again in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Sexton will captain Ireland again in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT SEEMS LIKELY that Andy Farrell won’t have to deal with another situation like the one presented to him by Johnny Sexton’s reaction upon being replaced last weekend.

Unless it’s by Sexton himself again.

“It’s not the first time, is it?” Farrell pointed out yesterday.

There simply isn’t another Irish rugby player like Sexton.

He belongs in an elite category as the only Irishman aside from Keith Wood to have won the World Rugby Player of the Year award, although Brian O’Driscoll should have received the honour in 2009.

As well as his ability, Sexton’s character is unique. They’re all serious competitors in professional rugby and none of us on the outside probably quite understand what goes into thriving or even just surviving at the top level of what is a brutally physical sport.

But Sexton has that little more edge, that little more ferocity in his desire to win, a sheer need to be successful that can spill out in an unedifying manner at times. 

When it’s channeled in the right way, Sexton’s personality is a driving force and a benchmark for those around him. But what makes Sexton the great player he has been can also be a major weakness – as it was last weekend.

To many people, his reaction was unacceptable from a captain but, publicly at least, Ireland boss Farrell has been happy to accept it. Sexton confirmed yesterday that he apologised to his head coach the day after the game in Paris, although Farrell was unwilling to go into detail.

“That will stay between me and Johnny, we’ve got a good relationship and a respectful one,” said Farrell. “Respectful is the word right at the top of that relationship. I’m more than happy with how things are going.”

Farrell certainly wasn’t willing to rebuke the 35-year-old as he looked to stress the quality of their coach-captain relationship, but one does wonder what might have happened if it was another player who had reacted in the manner Sexton did.

jonathan-sexton-leaves-the-field-after-being-replaced Sexton was replaced by Ross Byrne in Paris. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Would the Ireland head coach be willing to accept a less-established player so publicly questioning his decision?

“You’ve got to understand the person, everyone is different within this group, you know?” said Farrell when that was put to him.

“It’s his personality, it’s what gives him that winning edge. Of course, there’s always learning to go with that but everyone is different and you treat people differently as well.”

One could easily read that as ‘one rule for Johnny, one for the rest.’ It would be intriguing to get honest opinions from his Ireland team-mates about the incident, but Sexton himself said all is well on that front.

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“I spoke to a few guys over the last couple of days, I don’t think it is a big deal,” said Sexton. “I have asked others to ask them as well, they don’t think it is a big deal.

“They’d probably not say that to my face anyway in terms of it is not a big deal if it was, so, look, I think it is a storm in a teacup. It was a split-second thing, it didn’t carry over into the dressing room after, it didn’t carry into the team get-together that night.

“It was just one of those things you wish you could take back but, unfortunately, you can’t and you live and learn.”

Of course, behind the issue of Sexton’s reaction is the fact that he was being replaced at all, with Ireland back to within eight points of the French and chasing what admittedly still looked like an unlikely comeback win.

In Sexton’s ceaselessly competitive mind, he was still capable of pulling something out of the fire for Ireland and he clearly couldn’t understand why Farrell was calling him ashore.

Sexton certainly hadn’t been error-free but his replacement, Ross Byrne, had a tough 12 minutes after coming on and it still seems clear that Sexton is Ireland’s best out-half by a distance.

andy-farrell-and-jonathan-sexton Farrell and Sexton stressed they're keen to move on. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Farrell has been spoken several times of the need to have competition for places in his Ireland squad but with Joey Carbery remaining sidelined indefinitely, there isn’t huge pressure on Sexton for his place.

Farrell has brought Billy Burns back into his squad in place of Jack Carty to offer another option at out-half, while the Ireland boss feels 21-year-old Leinster out-half Harry Byrne is better off playing regular Pro14 rugby for the time being.

Sexton himself disagrees with the notion that there is no competition for his place.

“Everyone feels pressure, everyone feels competition – you are playing, training, you have reps, it’s competitive, in games in training it’s competitive,” said Sexton.

“I think the day that comes out of me is the day I’ll pack it in and that’s my honest answer. If I don’t feel threatened, I’ll know that it’s time for me to hang up the boots because I have always felt like that.

“At times I probably shouldn’t have been threatened but it’s the way I deal with threats, it’s the way I’m wired and even looking at the younger guys coming through who aren’t even in the squad I’m always looking at them, not worrying about them, just making sure they are still driving me and that’s the same.”

Originally published at 0700

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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