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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 18 February, 2019

Sexton excited to be part of Ireland's future into 2019 World Cup

The 30-year-old has taken some big hits but has also hit form in this Six Nations.

WE CAN REST assured that Johnny Sexton is preparing for tomorrow’s Six Nations clash with Scotland as studiously and thoroughly as anyone, but the out-half allowed his thoughts to slip into the future for a few minutes yesterday.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton remains the key influence in this Ireland team. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With the issue of Joe Schmidt’s contract with Ireland on the agenda, and question marks over whether or not the head coach will still be around for in 2019, the World Cup in Japan was mentioned to the Ireland out-half.

Sexton is 30 now, but the deal he signed with the IRFU to return to Ireland last year brings him right through until November 2019.

The Leinster playmaker has taken his fair share of bumps and bruises in what is as attritional a sport as any, but there is a frisson of excitement in Sexton when he looks ahead to another shot at a World Cup.

It’s the longest-term goal Sexton has, but he hopes Schmidt will remain on board to lead this Ireland group to Japan in search of success.

When you go through the squad, there is a real mix of experience and youth. Guys that are involved in their first Six Nations campaign have acquitted themselves really well.

“You’ve got to look a little further outside the squad for guys that are pushing hard to get into it – Garry Ringrose obviously springs to mind because he’s with my province.

“Guys like Josh van der Flier have done really well. I think we’ll be in a pretty good condition in four years and I hope I’ll be still around.

“You look at the guys outside, from the backline at the weekend, Robbie, Earlsy, Zebo, they’ll be around. Jared and Trimbs could be around in four years.

“You look at Brad Thorn winning the World Cup at 36 or 37 years of age. You could see someone like Jamie Heaslip doing that.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton is enjoying working under long-time head coach Joe Schmidt. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“The longer the game is professional, the more you will see guys playing to an older age. I want to play for as long as I can anyway.”

Given Sexton’s return to form in the current Six Nations and his enduring class, his hope of sticking around is likely to be warmly accepted by Schmidt or whoever is head coach leading into the 2019 tournament.

Whatever about that long-term goal, Sexton will naturally need to take care of his body as best possible in the intervening years. He is a firm advocate of the player welfare work done by the IRFU and the provinces, but every Irish fan has winced at the borderline and late hits Sexton has had to ensure in this Six Nations.

“The only frustrating thing from my point of view is that nothing has been done in terms of penalties, [which is] the worst things that have happened off a few of those late hits,” says Sexton.

Look, it’s part of the game, it’s what you expect as a number 10. I suppose we try to target the opposition number 10s as well, except we try to do it legally. You don’t know if it is a tactic or if it is an individual doing it off their own bat.

“It’s part of the game, some of them are marginal like the one [by Sergio Parisse] at the weekend. Just as I’m releasing the ball, you get tackled, that’s fine, it is part of the game. So I don’t think those are as bad as a couple of the other ones. I don’t think it is a big deal.

“They can be sore at times when you are not expecting them. I suppose you just have to dust yourself off and go again.”

Whatever about the unexpected and illegal hits like the one Yoann Maestri put on Sexton in the defeat to France, there have been other occasions when the Ireland out-half has knowingly put his body on the line in order to further his team’s success.

The starter play that eventually resulted in CJ Stander’s try against Italy last weekend is a case in point, as Sexton lured Michele Campagnaro right up into the hit and gave himself no time to brace for impact after releasing Keith Earls for the linebreak.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton has shipped some heavy knocks in the Six Nations. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Alan Gaffney used to say you had to put each other under pressure for a move to come off,” says Sexton.

“So for that move to work the way it did, I had to almost get man and ball for it to work. Maybe it was too close but that’s what makes the move work at times, if a defender feels he can get to you but the ball is somewhere else.

“So if the move comes off it’s great, you can get up and try and catch your breath for the conversion but, like I said, there’s absolutely no problem with a hit like that.”

Sexton’s form overall has been one of the most positive aspects of this championship for Ireland, though he would give up that individual excellence for better collective results.

As a 10, you go through highs and lows,” says the 30-year-old. “To be honest, I would rather be playing a little bit worse and winning. At the end of the day, when you’re playing number 10 you judge yourself on results, and we haven’t got them.

“When you are playing 10, you blame yourself as much as you look at the other guys around you. There have been a lot of distractions for me over the last number of weeks, since the start of the championship really.

“But I suppose the longer you are in the game, the better you become at trying to deal with those. I think you can put things in perspective a little bit.”

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Murray Kinsella

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