Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: -1°C Thursday 6 May 2021

Sexton takes dominant Ireland role on return to Paris after 'personal criticism'

The Ireland out-half has not appreciated the negative press in France.

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade de France

IRELAND EMERGED AT the Stade de France for their captain’s run this afternoon in Paris, but there wasn’t too much running around or rehearsing plays to begin with.

Instead, the squad gathered around Johnny Sexton for a huddle that lasted almost 10 minutes, the out-half commanding the group’s attention as he laid out the game plan with clarity.

Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney Sexton leads the Ireland team run in Paris. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Pointing deep to the left corner, he barked one instruction, wide to the right-hand touchline and another tactical guideline. There was intensity in the Leinster man’s words, though we’ve known for some time that he is a leader in this group.

His position on the pitch makes it so, but Sexton appears to have taken on even more responsibility within this shifting leadership of the Ireland group.

It’s also his first return to Paris since leaving Racing 92 last summer. The French media have taken several snipes at the 30-year-old since he departed, egged on by some off-the-record stuff from former teammates and coaches.

His time in France was a failure, so goes the sentiment, and while there may be a degree of validity in such arguments, there has been a personal element to some of the coverage this season too.

Sexton is the ‘Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ of rugby, said one prominent article.

“I do think it’s a little bit more personal especially some of the stuff that was written about me by certain French journalists,” Sexton told UTV Ireland yesterday.

“It does hurt when it is not true. I don’t mind when people criticise my performance because that is black and white.  You either play well or you don’t and that is part of the job. But when they make up stuff about your personality and portray you as I don’t think I am, that can hurt. So that’s a little bit more personal.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton didn't miss a kick from the tee last week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It probably came from the coach [Racing's Laurent Labit], who is probably trying to look after himself a little bit. But it is what it is.”

It’s only natural that Sexton would be hurting from some of the French review of his time at Racing, though he has had more important concerns this week.

His wife Laura gave birth to their second child, Amy. Perhaps his lazer-focus in Stade de France stems from that strange mental intensity that comes with extreme fatigue. Either way, the out-half looks utterly tuned in for tomorrow’s game.

Having shone against the Welsh last weekend and given the personal criticism he has been stung by, one gets the impression that Sexton is more amped up than ever.

Skipper Rory Best was almost a bystander before Ireland began their captain’s run proper in Paris this afternoon, but stressed afterwards that Sexton’s teammates must focus on their own jobs.

Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip Sexton arrives at Stade de France with Ireland vice-captain Jamie Heaslip. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Johnny has a big role in terms of the fact he runs the game for us anyway,” said Best in the bowels of the stadium in Saint-Denis. “So from that side of things he has enough to do anyway.

“If Johnny knows one of the players personally and someone asked him about it, he’s always giving of his time and information. But the pressure’s on each player, we can’t rely on Johnny because he’s played in France to help us with the profiles, we’ve got to know all of that ourselves.

“He just talked through a few of the plays, things around game plan. At this stage of the week it’s important that it’s player-driven. That’s what the huddle and the walk around the pitch is all about.

“Everyone gets a sense that the coaches have done their bit and it’s up to the players now. The coaches can influence tactics, but ultimately it’s up to the players that take the field.”

4 changes to Munster team to face Ospreys as Kilcoyne and Sherry return

Lawes, Vunipola and Youngs to start as England make three changes

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next: