COMPLACENCY ISN’T PART of Johnny Sexton’s DNA. He knows last season was last season, and a dream double counts for little in the context of this season. He knows success is earned, not given and past glory is no guarantee of future success. He knows this because he has been on both sides of the fence, and doesn’t want to let the standards at Leinster slip again.
Sexton’s unrelenting pursuit of perfection, ability to drive standards within a dressing room and maintain his own made him the obvious candidate to succeed Isa Nacewa as the province’s captain; he is a born leader, whether or not the captain’s armband is on his sleeve.
We’ve seen glimpses of it down through the years, but particularly last term when he stepped into the role during the closing stages of Leinster’s two-pronged Pro14-Champions Cup assault, leading from the front and driving the province to a fourth European crown.
Other coaches had resisted the temptation to give him the role on a permanent basis, perhaps wary of his fiery nature and tendency to get on the wrong side of the referee. But, now, the armband is officially his, the honour bestowed upon the 33-year-old by his team-mates and Leinster coaching staff ahead of a significant season for the province and Irish rugby as a whole.
The 2019 World Cup looms large and Sexton’s minutes in a blue jersey will be managed accordingly, meaning his appointment as captain will likely coincide with a reduced role for Leinster in terms of playing, but he has always led in more ways than one.
“We had some good conversations over a period of time about it and there’s obviously pros and cons to me doing it,” he said.
“With me being away with Ireland and we talked about that, whether it’s best for the group and I think the one thing I’ll say about captaincy is over the years in Leinster, the captains have always relied on the leadership group and it’ll be no different with me.
“We’ve got some other guys there that could have easily taken the job as well and I’ll rely heavily on them over the year. It’ll be very much a leadership group effort.
“I actually really enjoyed it [captaining Leinster] last season. I suppose over the years I’ve had conversations with different coaches who haven’t gone with me as captain and I’ve understood it.
“They’ve felt that I’ve had too much on my plate with the kicking, decision-making and all that goes with being a captain would be too much — I’ve never felt like that personally but you’ve got to just accept their reasons for it and I was just honoured to get it.
“I’ve obviously waited a long time for it but still a huge honour for me. Like I said, I grew up wanting to play for Leinster and to captain Leinster and to finally happen is brilliant.”
Sexton was masterful throughout Leinster’s double-winning campaign, playing the role of orchestrator-in-chief to perfection, most notably in the Champions Cup final in Bilbao and then the Pro14 decider against Scarlets, when he put on an exhibition at the Aviva Stadium.
And his own individual form was even more remarkable when you think this time 12 months he approached the season as a patched-up version of himself, his wrist in a splint and ankle in a protective boot after a draining Lions tour.
But Sexton, even at 33, is still at the peak of his powers and, given Ireland’s Grand Slam success and that drop goal in Paris, arguably had his greatest season yet, and that’s saying something.
His enduring brilliance and talismanic performances means he has become an indispensable force within the Leinster side, and the role of captain has only renewed his hunger, increased his appetite for success and motivated him to do it all again this year.
“With the captaincy, it was exactly what I needed,” he continued.
“I feel I want to get back out there, I want to train better, I want to do everything a bit better to lead by example. It has been great for me and hopefully it’ll continue to be like that and I just can’t wait to get back now. I feel good body wise and mind, and get out there and get started.”
As Sexton follows a delayed path back to action following Ireland’s summer tour of Australia, he’ll have to wait a while longer to step out as the Leinster captain, although he hopes to return before the inter-pro against Munster in round six.
“It’s up to Leo really,” looking towards his head coach.
For now, Sexton and his Ireland team-mates will have to watch on as Leinster begin the defence of their Pro14 title with back-to-back away games against Cardiff Blues and Scarlets, an opening few weeks which will certainly test the champions’ early-season form.
Harsh lessons were learned from the heavy pre-season defeat to Newcastle last week, Sexton says, and if Leinster are to go anywhere near replicating the achievements of last season, they’ll have to improve further across the board.
“It was a dream season last year, but it was last year and you know from experience you’ll be judged from your last game,” he adds.
“You’re only a couple of games away from being on the other side of the fence and we’ve had a taste of that over three years; we had one good year last year and the other two years didn’t end the way we would have liked.
“We’ve got a taste of both sides and now we’ve got to, maybe not emulate last year, but try and get better.
“We haven’t added to the group massively. We’ve placed Isa with Joe Tomane and that’s it really, we haven’t replaced a lot of the guys who’ve left so straight away we’re probably up against it straight way but we’ve always relied heavily on our academy system and we’ll rely heavily on them again.
“That’s where you need good coaches, to make sure those young guys are up to speed straight away.”
The addition of Felipe Contepomi to Cullen’s coaching staff will play a big part in that.
“He has been great for the group. Girv [Dempsey] obviously did a great job over the few years, but I just think with Felipe it’s a fresh voice. It’s someone who knows the club, knows the culture of the place and someone who wants to add to the team and make us better.
“I think he’s got the rugby brain to see where we can improve from last year and he’s been working with Stu and Leo and he’s been brilliant so far.
“We know we have to decide which way we want to go. It’s a good place to be I think.
“We’re looking at it as the start of a journey as opposed to the end. There are guys coming towards the end but there are also a lot of young guys in the squad that are striving to build their own legacy in Leinster.”
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