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Sexton's mission for World Cup redemption with Ireland will be riveting

The Leinster out-half will play on until the age of 38 in his bid for further glory.

Sexton will play on until after the 2023 World Cup.
Sexton will play on until after the 2023 World Cup.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AS SOON AS Johnny Sexton declared his intention to “go out at the top” with Ireland at the 2023 World Cup, the jokes started to roll in.

Going out in another World Cup quarter-final counts as going out at the top? So went the gags yesterday.

Shutting those people up is one of the things that motivates Sexton to play on until the age of 38. His vision for the final chapter of his career features success for Ireland in France next year.

Breaking the glass ceiling and getting beyond the quarter-finals would count as an achievement, given that France or New Zealand look certain to lie in wait in that knock-out tie, but Sexton will be aiming higher.

He spoke recently about how Ireland having experienced a raucous Stade de France atmosphere during this Six Nations will be helpful next year, when they play World Cup pool games against South Africa and Scotland there, then also a potential quarter-final, a potential semi-final, and a potential final in the same Parisian venue.

Sexton mentioned all three of those knock-out games and he has been central to Ireland focusing on the World Cup earlier than usual under head coach Andy Farrell. All eyes are on Saturday’s Six Nations clash with England right now, of course, but Ireland have been open about their aim to be pitch-perfect for the global tournament next year.

Having signed a new contract extension with the IRFU through until the end of the World Cup, Sexton is set to be a key part of their effort.

“If the environment that we’ve created here wasn’t so special and the environment with Leinster wasn’t so good, it would be easier to walk away,” said Sexton yesterday.

johnny-sexton Sexton at Ireland's open training session last week. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s obviously always going to be tough to leave doing what you love doing, but the fact that I’m loving it so much and you’re playing with such a great group of people and brilliant players makes the want and desire to achieve with these people more than ever.

“That’s the biggest thing. I can’t imagine myself sitting and watching next year’s rugby or the World Cup watching this group of players play and not be part of it. So, that was the big thing for me, what wouldn’t you just keep going?”

In Sexton’s mind, everything pointed towards playing on. He is enjoying his rugby as much as ever and it’s clear that he is still operating at an elite level. Things can change very quickly in rugby, but the current signs are good.

Sexton is also thoroughly enjoying working with Farrell in this Ireland set-up. Previously, the out-half was basically the on-pitch version of Joe Schmidt. Now he’s Farrell’s main man.

Farrell is a very different head coach and he has pushed Sexton in different ways. He has made him the Ireland captain, for starters, and then changed the way this team plays. Sexton is delighted that he was among those who campaigned for Farrell to join Ireland as an assistant to Schmidt in 2016.

“He’s had a big impact on me as a player,” said Sexton.

“The first time you meet him, it was how impressive he was. Obviously, it was defence primarily in 2013 with the Lions and when the opportunity came up, all the senior Irish players rang Joe Schmidt and said, ‘We need to get this guy, he’s top-quality.’

“It was one of Joe’s big decisions at the time to get him in, it gave us a huge spike. It was a huge factor in us winning the Grand Slam.

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johnny-sexton-and-andy-farrell Sexton is enjoying working with Farrell. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s come in as a head coach and put his own stamp on things, which was a brave thing to do. To totally change the way we were playing, the way we approach games, it took a while. We stayed patient and were confident in what he was doing and knew it would eventually sink in and we’d get it.

“We’ve had a period of good performances, we came a little bit unstuck against France and we hope to bounce back this week. But he’s been brilliant since he came in. He’s always challenging us, challenging me to get better.”

The pair of them have grand ambitions for Ireland next year, having both been part of the disappointing 2019 campaign. Sexton also played in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, so he’s motivated to help set things right for Irish rugby.

“I’d like to think that even if we were successful at previous ones, I’d still have the drive,” he said.

“But it makes it that bit easier to want to go again because I’m very grateful for the career I’ve had but you do look back and go, ‘We gave up some chances at World Cups and we didn’t perform at other World Cups, but want to put that right’

“It’s just an opportunity at the moment. You’re not guaranteed anything, as in you’re not guaranteed anything with selection. You have to continue to stay fit and keep your form and warrant a place in the team of course.

“To have that opportunity to try and do that is great now.”

Sexton and Ireland’s mission for World Cup redemption will be riveting. The out-half’s career has rarely been anything besides.

On Saturday, he’s set for his last ever Six Nations game in Twickenham. Here’s to the final chapter.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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