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'Age is definitely just a number' - Rejuvenated Sexton picks up where he left off

The 36-year-old Leinster captain looked sharp as his side battered Bath.

Sexton made his first start since November.
Sexton made his first start since November.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THIS AFTERNOON IN Bath was a reminder that Johnny Sexton’s demand for the highest standards remains utterly undiminished.

The 36-year-old Leinster skipper was back in the starting XV as his team brushed Bath aside on a 64-7 scoreline at The Rec, running in 10 tries as they booked their place in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup.

Sexton was making his first start since Ireland beat the All Blacks a full 10 weeks ago, having made his initial return to action off the bench last weekend in the hammering of Montpellier at the RDS.

Aside from his frustration at three missed conversions, Sexton looked sharp in what will be his last outing before leading Ireland against Wales in their Six Nations opener in two weekends’ time.

As he trudged off in the 54th minute having been replaced by Ross Byrne, Sexton didn’t look too pleased with how things had unfolded for him but his head coach, Leo Cullen, was happy.

“He had a smile on his face in the dressing room,” said Cullen. “The big thing is just trying to get through, that’s his first start in a while, since the November internationals.

“Johnny will go into camp and hopefully those guys kick on now over the next number of weeks. It’s hugely exciting, especially in and around the crowd piece.

“You think back to last year’s Six Nations without crowds and the difference that will hopefully make this year. We’ll watch on a lot of those guys in terms of the Six Nations and we’ll work away with the group that we have now.”

garry-ringrose-celebrates Leinster scored 10 tries against Bath. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Sexton was in brilliant form for Ireland in their November wins against Japan and the All Blacks before missing the Argentina clash due to an ankle and knee injury, while he started Leinster’s season superbly too.

It’s clear that he remains by some distance the best out-half in Ireland and Cullen believes that missing out on the Lions last summer has sparked a response in Sexton.

“Obviously he was gutted with himself about missing out on selection for the Lions,” said Cullen.

“I think we are definitely the beneficiaries of that because we would have had Johnny for a big block, where he was keeping himself ready, working on his body, making sure he was in tip-top shape if he was called upon.

“Obviously the call never came but I guess having him around for pre-season for a lot of the young guys, driving standards day-to-day.

“You can see it in him, he is sort of rejuvenated. We played Harlequins in pre-season and he was fantastic that day. He was even talking about being nervous, it had been so long.

“We are the beneficiaries and Ireland as well to a certain extent after missing out on the Lions, as hard as that was for him at the time. Hopefully, he’ll get that time back later on, if you know what I mean?

jimmy-obrien-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-caelan-doris-and-hugo-keenan Leinster are into the round-of-16. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“He has trained well over this block, we haven’t played that many games. It’s phenomenal really, a 36-year-old, but age is definitely just a number in his case.

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“His mind is still as sharp as ever. The crossfield kick for Jimmy [O'Brien] and even just the awareness of them being a winger down, etc. Lots of good stuff. I think the two Byrnes [Ross and Harry] pushing him on as well is no harm too.”

All in all, Cullen was content as Leinster got set for their flight to Dublin this evening, with his team having booked their place in the round-of-16 of Europe in April.

They must wait now to find out who they will face, but 15 match points from 15 in the three pool games they got to play, as well as 30 tries, has been a pleasing return.

“It was good,” said Cullen of today’s performance.

“I thought Bath came strong at the start to be fair to them, missed a few opportunities, we gave away a few penalties and they put us into the corner a few times. We managed to hold out and then we hit them for two quick scores, then scored a third. We were a little bit loose at times, giving up the intercept try.

“Credit to the players, they showed really good attacking intent to score five tries in each half. That’s a pretty decent effort.

“We’ll see how it all unfolds out now over the next day and a bit. It’s a guessing game. You can easily get sucked into those conversations and the big thing for us is to control what we can control.”

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Murray Kinsella  / Reports from The Rec

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