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2018 the year when Johnny Sexton showed his permanent class

The Ireland and Leinster out-half was crowned World Rugby Player of the Year on Sunday evening.
Nov 26th 2018, 12:05 AM 9,341 6

CLAIMING THE WORLD Rugby Player of the Year award in Monte Carlo was a glorious moment indeed, but it was far from the crowning moment of Jonathan Sexton’s 2018.

They were littered all the way through.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates after the game Sexton carries the Pro14 trophy across the Aviva Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It is fitting, however, that this honour should come a week after he helped Ireland topple New Zealand, for he ends a six-year stretch of All Blacks claiming the game’s biggest individual prize.

Sexton has been a brilliant player for an awful long time, but this was the year when it all seemed to come together for both club and country. The fruits of so much hard labour.

Early last season, before a glittering 2018 was unfurled, Joe Schmidt made a passing comment which in hindsight reads like a challenge to his long-time lieutenant. In speaking about the difficulty of selecting Simon Zebo once he became Paris-based, the Kiwi offered up a parable about a player – unnamed, but easily identified – who went to the Top 14 and returned seemingly a little more fragile than when he left.

“There’s one player who went to  Racing 92 and was played for the first 12 games in the season, and I’m not sure he’s ever had the same resilience since then,” said Schmidt before last year’s November series kicked off.

For all the rightful confidence derived from the massive increase in depth across Ireland’s squad and for all the excellence in Joey Carbery, the thought of entering a must-win game against serious Tier 1 opposition without the playmaker-in-chief is enough to knot the stomach.

By putting in those unseen hours of rehab, prehab and gruelling off-feet conditioning, Sexton has earned the right to be on the pitch for each and every pivotal moment for Ireland and Leinster in 2018. And, once he is on the field, the opposition are at a massive disadvantage.

His 22 appearances this year is slightly up on his previous vintages since returning from France. The difference this year was the magnitude of the matches he was able to play in. The IRFU’s player management programme has played a role in keeping his powder dry.

Sexton won 19 of his 20 starts in the calendar year, a record only just blotted on his last outing for Leinster in Toulouse. That winning habit is testament to his ability to pick and choose when to strike and when to turn a screw in matches.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates winning A trophy in Twickenham. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His temper is often the subject of slagging from team-mates, but his big match temperament is beyond question.

For when the game or the tournament is on the line Sexton has stepped up.

He has become a far greater player than the line-breaking buck who created the most dramatic Heineken Cup final comeback, the out-half is constantly directing traffic, marshaling and cajoling team-mates. His hands-on style of game management is what truly set him aside from his chief rival for the gong in Monaco. His range of kicking can break games as well as twist the knife and his unflinching bravery helps him unleash precision passes to put others through gaps he has drawn hungry tacklers out of.

Sexton has long been targeted and too often before this year that targeting was allowed go unchecked. And despite what the Dragons’ Ross Moriarty may see, there remain too many times when off-the-ball punishment fizzles out with no decision and a cloud of boos from in the stadium.

One of Sexton’s finest displays this year came in the Champions Cup quarter-final win against Saracens. Then too, the out-half was hammered by late hits as the Premiership side appeared to sniff out the most straightforward way to get an upper hand in the contest. Sexton rolled with the punches, channeling his anger and frustration into a performance that punished the English champions.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates with the European Rugby Champions Cup trophy A sweet return to the top of Europe with Leinster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Having turned 33 in July, he still appears to be reaching for a peak, but it will be hard to top a 12-month stretch in which he led Ireland to a home win over the All Blacks, a first series win in Australia, a double to give weight to the notion that Leinster are the best club side since the European Cup’s inception, a Grand Slam in Twickenham and the moment that set all that magic in motion. 41 phases of iron will in Paris.

Just as his achievements are built on brilliant team performances, his astounding last-gasp drop-goal to give Ireland an opening night Six Nations win away to France was built on a collective coherence and confidence that the man at the wheel would not steer them wrong.

That wasn’t the initial feeling of the nation when the St Mary’s product set a cross-field kick loose in his own half 24 phases in. Yet these are the nerveless decisions that the great 10s do not shirk. It was measured to perfection to meet Keith Earls’ sublime leap. As the phases racked up, Sexton could see what he needed to do and so he took a step back.

He had the cool, presence of mind to know when he wasn’t needed and got down on the ground to stretch what cramp he could out of his legs, preparing for that most crucial second.

With 82.38 on the clock, there was no room for error.

Fortunately Ireland had the perfect 10.

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Sean Farrell

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