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Will Leinster cope when Sexton retires? They already know how to live without him

The Leinster and Ireland captain has played just 52 of the province’s last 162 competitive games.

Sexton has 3 starts for Leinster this season.
Sexton has 3 starts for Leinster this season.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

JOHNNY SEXTON HAS played more times for Ireland this season than he has for Leinster. It was the same story last year and the one before that. The 2018/19 campaign was different. Leinster got him for 12 games, Ireland for seven.

The previous year’s race was closer. We saw him in blue 12 times, in green 10. But the season prior to that, 2016/17, it was 10 games for Leinster, 12 for Ireland and the Lions.

All in, Leinster have played 162 competitive games across the last six seasons, Sexton featuring in only 52. Across the same timeframe, he has played 51 times for Ireland and the British and Irish Lions.

So yes, Sexton is captain for club and country, but is he really a symbol for Leinster the way he is for Ireland? You can point to his big days, the coming-of-age penalty he landed against Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi; the comeback he inspired against Northampton in the 2011 final; the four Heineken Cups, the six Pro14/URC titles.

But that’s historic.

Once you look more closely at recent evidence, specifically at the team sheets, including tonight’s against bitter rivals, Munster, it is fairly obvious that Ross Byrne, rather than Sexton, should be that symbol.

ross-byrne Ross Byrne tops the Leinster stats chart. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

After all, Byrne is the player who has scored the most points for them this season, supplying more try assists than anyone else. He is in Thomond Park tonight, one of a number of unsung heroes.

Their two starting wingers for tonight’s interpro are Jimmy O’Brien and James Lowe. But it is O’Brien, not international Lowe, who is their leading try scorer, while the second row who leads the stats chart is Ross Molony rather than James Ryan.

It’s easy to see why. Ryan has played just three URC games this season. Right across the board, you see two Leinsters, those who slog through the winter to get the team into the knock-out stages and the sunshine boys who then play in them.

That second list is a lengthy one. Garry Ringrose will be seen in the URC for the first time tonight since 3 December while his centre partner, Robbie Henshaw, will play just his 27th URC outing since he swapped Galway for the RDS six years ago.

robbie-henshaw-and-garry-ringrose Henshaw and Ringrose start tonight's game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Interestingly, the last time Sexton was asked to hop on a plane to travel out of Ireland for a URC/Pro14 regular season game was in November 2017.

This is partly why supporters of the league always feel the need to apologise on its behalf. When its biggest stars are regularly absent, it becomes a harder sell. To be fair to Sexton, Ryan, Henshaw and Ringrose, there’s only so much they can do when certain games are rescheduled for the same weekend as Six Nations matches. All are good players but the ability to bi-locate? That is a lot to ask.

This entire issue comes with layers of complexities. On the one hand, the sport needs customers to walk through the gates but it is a lot easier to persuade them to make that journey when the guys they spot on the billboards are also the ones they see on the pitch.

And that just doesn’t happen often. Ryan has played just nine games in the URC across the last three seasons while Ringrose featured in more games in his first two seasons as an emerging pro in this competition than he has in the last five seasons combined.

This problem isn’t just confined to Leinster. This evening’s opponents, Munster, have seen Conor Murray in action for just 21 minutes of this season’s URC. Up in Ulster, Iain Henderson – their captain – has clocked up only 135 minutes this term while Connacht’s poster boy, Bundee Aki, has played just four of their 18 games in 2021/22.

You don’t get these club-versus-country conflicts in a sport like soccer, not just because they have set international windows where the club scene gets shut down, but also because the physical impact on the player’s body is much less severe. For context, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sexton were born just five months apart but Ronaldo’s professional debut came as a 17-year-old, something that isn’t feasible in pro rugby.

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Now 37, Ronaldo has played 1,112 games for club and country; Sexton has played 340.

cristiano-ronaldo-reacts-after-a-tackle-from-seamus-coleman Ronaldo has played 1,112 games as a pro. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Of course there is one other big difference. Manchester United, Ronaldo’s club, are also his employers but it is the IRFU who pay Sexton’s wages. That gives them the right to call the shots, to impose their player management structure across the provincial scene. It’s why you see Sexton only every now and then in a Leinster shirt.

But it is also the reason why he is still going at 36.

There are other benefits to the system. For a start, doors open when Ireland’s frontliners are away. That, essentially, was how Ringrose got his chance to bloom in 2015/16, how Sexton initially matured, how Hugo Keenan emerged.

But what does Leinster coach, Leo Cullen, do when they get to a European semi-final or URC final? Last season the answer presented itself when Sexton was injured and Byrne started the Champions Cup semi in La Rochelle. Then when the tough call had to be made in the 2021 and 2020 Pro14 finals, Cullen didn’t shirk it: Byrne, rather than Sexton, started.

Furlong was another who X-Factor star who had to content himself with a place on the bench for a Pro14 final. It is a tightrope the coach regular walks, dividing the workload between a hungry squad of 50 players, knowing there’ll always be a labour shortage in November, February and March but that when it comes to April and May, everyone wants the same thing.

And he isn’t able to provide that. He gets torn between showing loyalty to the players who soldiered with him in darkest winter and the players he knows are best equipped to win cup finals. It’s a major flaw in the Irish model, that and the fact the biggest derbies rarely showcase all the biggest stars.

If there is a comfort for Cullen to cling to, it’s this. Ireland may be neurotic about a future without Sexton but Leinster aren’t. They have learned how to cope without him.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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