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Sexton returning to his best despite Ireland's Six Nations shortcomings
The Ireland out-half has been better with each passing week.

JOHNNY SEXTON CAME into the Six Nations with doubts hanging around his form and with widespread concern for his health amid what he perceived as a nonsensical public debate about his concussion history.

Jonathan Sexton and Jared Payne Colm O'Neill / INPHO Sexton has had an excellent Six Nations so far. Colm O'Neill / INPHO / INPHO

Given those distractions, it would have been easy for the Ireland out-half to take his eye off the ball. Instead, Sexton has been superb.

There have been errors along the way of course, frustrating no one more than himself, but Sexton’s form in this Six Nations has been a timely reminder that he is Ireland’s most important player.

It appeared to take the St. Mary’s man some time to get over World Cup disappointment and injury with Leinster as he slowly built himself back up upon his return to the province after two years in France.

Many feared that Sexton was a shadow of his former self, and there were calls for Paddy Jackson to be selected as Ireland’s starting out-half based on his delightful form for Ulster.

While Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has been one of disappointment, Sexton’s performances have been among the most encouraging factors. He has shipped huge hits as always, but constantly picks himself up to make another good decision for Ireland.

“I’m tempted to say Johnny wants to prove people wrong, but I don’t think Johnny really cares that much,” says his Ireland teammate Andrew Trimble of the pre-tournament talk around Sexton. “I don’t think Johnny would buy into any of that.

“He just plays the type of rugby he wants to play. He just wants to perform as well as he can. He takes on a lot of responsibility for our team performance, our shape, our pattern, our tempo, everything, and he takes the credit when it’s going well and the flak when it’s not going well.

Jonathan Sexton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sexton has put his body on the line for Ireland. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“There are thin margins between it going well and badly. I don’t think he’d get too bogged down in what people are saying.”

Sexton’s passing in this competition has largely been a joy to behold. Oddly enough, two of the finest examples of the raw skill from the Leinster out-half were decisions he himself questioned.

First was the beautiful long pass to Trimble after Sexton cut the line from a set-piece play in the second half against Wales. The out-half and Joe Schmidt both reflected on a missed opportunity to drop a delayed short pass off his right shoulder to Simon Zebo.

Then there was the gorgeous pass back inside to Trimble in the glorious build-up to Jamie Heaslip’s first try against Italy, when Sexton zipped the ball to the Ulsterman despite being on the move at pace himself.

On that occasion, Sexton actually pondered afterwards whether he should have sold Edoardo Padovani with a dummy and gone himself.

“Johnny afterwards, he was thinking he might just have shown again and gone for the corner,” says Trimble with a knowing smile. “But I don’t think he would have made it to be honest, get the old knees up again.”

These self-critical mini-reviews of games within games are typical of the demands Sexton places on himself. Those demands famously fall on the shoulders of his teammates too, with many stories existing of Ireland players getting a lash of the out-half’s tongue.

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Pass Sexton throws a beauty against the Welsh.

As one of the least experienced players in the squad, openside flanker Josh van der Flier has been learning quickly in this Six Nations and says Sexton is always on hand to help speed that process up.

“He’s had a few things to say to me alright, but always helpful,” says the Leinster back row. “I’ve never had a situation where he’s given out to me and it hasn’t been deserved. I’ve made a mistake or something and kind of deserve it, so someone would have given out to me anyway!”

Van der Flier has benefited hugely from the experience of Sexton alongside him on his first two caps for Ireland.

Much comment is made about Sexton’s high tackle focus, but that discussion often overlooks the fact that the out-half is one of Ireland’s best defenders. Certainly there are few 10s as good as him on the defensive side of the game.

The choke tackle is his trademark and has been much utilised in this championship, but perhaps the real key that cannot be fully appreciated in the stands is his communication.

“He talks loads and he’s really good at controlling the game, running the game,” says van der Flier. “I’d always feel like I try, as much as I can, to talk to him and tell him who I’m marking or whatever, especially off lineouts the two of us would have to link if we’re playing.

“He’s really good at communication and then I’d try and communicate back to him. I’m not quite as good as him, but I’m trying to get there.”

Jonathan Sexton Ryan Byrne / INPHO Sexton had a poor day off the tee against Italy. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton’s kicking from hand has taken time to hit a peak in this Six Nations, if we are to judge him to the world-class levels he does himself. There have been some standout touches along the way, including the bomb for Robbie Henshaw to regather against France and some of the clever diagonals that drew hearty applause at the Aviva Stadium last weekend.

The Leinster man successfully kicked his first nine attempts at goal in the championship too, showing an unerring accuracy off the tee, before an off-day against the Italians when he missed three from seven.

“It was a bit of everything,” says Ireland kicking specialist Richie Murphy in reviewing that place-kicking performance. “He got a bit of a knock a couple of times before he had to kick.

“It wasn’t his best day off the tee, but we’ll just move from that and hopefully he’ll be back in good form this week. He had nine from nine prior to that, he’d missed one from the touchline and the other one was a difficult enough kick.

“Although you don’t feel the breeze there was actually a strong breeze coming across the stadium from right to left out of that corner and it just rode on the wind. He wouldn’t be overly happy with missing three kicks but the great thing about this is that you just put it behind you and move on.”

That sums Sexton up. There has been so much written and said about the out-half that he has found exasperating, but Ireland’s most important player has been able to put it behind him and perform on the pitch.

As Ireland look towards the major challenges awaiting in the remainder of 2016, Sexton’s presence is reassuring.

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