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Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 5°C
James Crombie/INPHO Sexton during his debut against Fiji.
# turning point
'He was like a man inspired' - Recalling Johnny Sexton's Ireland debut against Fiji
After a long wait for international recognition, the out-half enjoyed a memorable Test debut against Fiji at the RDS in 2009.

IT’S WET, IT’S cold, and it’s not even sold out. Fiji aren’t the biggest draw in this part of the world, so the IRFU have been happy enough to fix the game for the RDS. There’s nowhere else in the world Johnny Sexton would rather be. He’s been waiting long enough.

The Leinster outhalf is winning his first Test cap for Ireland. We can’t read his mind but presumably he’s thinking something along the lines of, “about bloody time.” He’s 24 years old. For context, Ronan O’Gara already had 11 caps to his name before there were 24 candles on his cake. Joey Carbery, the man who would emerge as Sexton’s closest challenger almost a decade later, was first capped the weekend of his 21st birthday.

Sexton’s inclusion is the main talking point ahead of an otherwise low-key November international, sandwiched in between games against Australia and South Africa.

As the rain pelts down, the Fiji team stand and shiver through three anthems with their track tops tucked up safely back in the dressing room. Even before a ball was kicked, it was clear the visitors didn’t know what they were in for.

Fiji kick-off. Ireland kick downfield, Fiji return the favour. With 35 seconds on the clock Sexton has the ball in his hands for the first time as a senior international. Deep in the Ireland half, he shapes to kick, dummies Fiji captain Seremaia Bai, and hares past a handful more defenders to get his team up to halfway. The crowd roars.

jonathan-sexton-makes-a-break Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sexton makes a break against Fiji in 2009. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ryle Nugent sums it up perfectly on RTÉ for the viewers at home: “That tells you something about the confidence of the man.”

*********************

Andrew Trimble goes back a long way with Sexton. All the way to schools rugby, thanks to a long-lasting relationship between Dublin’s St Mary’s and Coleraine Academical Institution. The two promising young players would first get to know each other as opponents before the international age grades brought them into the same dressing room.

It didn’t take long for Sexton to make an impression on the Ulsterman.

“I remember at U21s doing ice bath recoveries, and the S&C coach told Johnny to get his shoulders under the water,” Trimble says, a laugh rising before he gets to end of the sentence. “Johnny shouted back – ‘I haven’t got shoulders!’

“He wasn’t that athletic. You wouldn’t have watched him and thought ‘Oh he’s got something special’, you had to spend time with him and see what he contributed on and off the pitch, and what he contributed to the team environment. 

“You have a lot of guys who when they are coming through the ranks, you’re going, ‘He’s going to be amazing, I can’t wait to see how he copes with the step up to professional rugby, international rugby, etc.’ Tommy Bowe for example, he got the ball in his half and just scored tries left, right and centre. He had X-factor, pace, he was incredible. Stockdale did something similar.

jonathan-sexton-and-andrew-trimble Morgan Treacy / INPHO Sexton and Trimble have known each other since their days playing schools rugby. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“With Johnny I don’t know if there was that expectation because what he brought to the game was slightly less obvious. It looks obvious now when you watch him, he’s always the best player on the pitch, but it’s not based on a level of athleticism.”

The game intelligence that now marks Sexton out would arrive later. What the young Dubliner did already possess, though, was the serious competitive edge which has stayed with him throughout his career.

“The Johnny that I got to know through underage, through the U21s, he was always consistently behaving in the way we know him now,” Trimble continues.

“He always wore his heart on his sleeve and he always had a level of confidence about him, but it was like humble confidence I think, in terms of what he thought he could contribute and a feeling of no-nonsense. Like, he’s got the worst poker-face in the world. He was always ratty, always grumpy on the pitch.

It was just pure and raw. He got pissed off if things didn’t go his way because he is such a competitor. I think that raw, sort of grumpiness, he fine-tuned that into becoming the Johnny Sexton we know today who drives the culture in a team and drives the environment and the standards.”

Sexton did well at U21 level but then slipped back into the shadows. He made his Leinster debut against Border Reivers at Donnybrook in 2006. It was a soft landing at senior level, his only appearance that season. Three more caps came across the 2006/2007 campaign. In 07/08, his stats shot up.

But 2009 was the year Sexton’s world changed. It all centered around Croke Park.

 *********************

“I figure I was trying too hard at times last year, I’ve relaxed more and I’m more positive in the things I’m trying to do.”

There’s 30 minutes on the clock when Gordon D’Arcy gets over in the corner to put Leinster 11-6 up against holders Munster in a seismic Heineken Cup semi-final meeting. Sexton has only been on the pitch five minutes, an early replacement for the injured Felipe Contepomi. He’s already kicked a penalty before his sharp long pass helps set the wheels in motion for D’Arcy’s score. His next act, screaming in the face of Ronan O’Gara, becomes one of the defining images of his career.

gordon-darcy-celebrates-his-try-with-shane-horgan-and-luke-fitzgerald James Crombie / INPHO Sexton gets in O'Gara's face during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton would keep the 10 shirt for the final against Leicester, scoring 11 points in a 19-16 win. 

“I don’t know if he had run out of patience, or maybe just the outburst that day against Munster was a reflection of what he knew about how he could contribute and how meaningful it could be,” Trimble continues.

“But I think he grew a lot between that European game against Munster and that November. He probably grew in confidence and in that assurance that he was right for international rugby and right to be a viable alternative to what was there.”

I was going to say that potentially back then it might have been a difficult relationship (between Sexton and O’Gara), but it also was a really healthy relationship for Ireland. The two of them were similar in a lot of ways. Very stubborn. Very confident. Very competitive, and got the best out of each other.

“I don’t remember any bust-ups or heated arguments. Some heated conversations, of course, but nothing that wasn’t healthy and good for the environment.” 

Sexton trains with Ireland over the summer but his involvement in the Heineken Cup final sees him miss out on internationals against Canada and the USA in May. His stock was rising, but the long wait for international recognition continued.

That November Ireland are booked in for three Tests against Australia, Fiji and South Africa. Much of the focus is around the Ireland 10 shirt. Sexton watches the Australia game from the bench as O’Gara kicks two penalties and two conversions in a 20-20 draw.

The following week it’s Fiji at the RDS. A chance for Kidney shuffle the pack. A glimpse at the future. 

*********************

“It was very nice to hear my name read out. It is a very proud moment for me and my family. It’s something that I always wanted since I was a kid.”

Kidney picks a strong team to face the Fijians. O’Driscoll, Horgan, D’Arcy, O’Connell, Hayes, but there’s a new face at 10 as Sexton finally gets his shot. 

Throughout the week his teammates are asked to offer their opinion on Ireland’s newest out-half.

“He puts a lot of emphasis into work ethic and he’s talented,” says Brian O’Driscoll.

“It’s been a huge six months for him, coming into the (Heineken Cup) semi-final and controlling things as he did. We slag him over his encyclopedic knowledge of rugby. He’s provided a solid basis for us (Leinster) this season and with every game is getting better.”

The player himself is also placed in front of the media a few days out from the game.  

“I wasn’t happy there (in the replacements with Leinster), but looking back, I learned a lot from just watching, I learned a lot from Felipe [Contepomi]; maybe even more than if I had been thrown in there (to play).

“It’s hard to comment on yourself. I suppose I’ve been not trying as hard at the start of last year. I just relaxed a little bit. Now I’m not sort of concentrating on mistakes but I’ve a more positive outlook maybe.”

leo-cullen-jonathan-sexton-gordon-darcy-eoin-reddan-jamie-heaslip-and-rob-kearney Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sexton lines up with the Ireland team for the anthems. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton lights it up against Fiji, that early break forward showcasing his attacking intent. He makes a similar burst late in the first half which almost leads to a brilliant end-to-end score. His passing is sharp, he mixes up his kicking game well and despite the unfavourable conditions, hits seven from seven off the tee.

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He heads home with the man-of-the-match award tucked into his gearbag alongside his first Ireland jersey. 

“His distribution was good,” remembers Trimble, who started the game on the bench.

He was always a smart player, but I don’t think he had anywhere near the intricacy or the understanding of how to break down a defence or how to get phase play shape correct. But he was always very studious, always had his books out making sure he was prepared and if he ever did get an opportunity, he wanted to grab it. The Munster game in Croke Park, he grabbed that, and then his first cap against Fiji, he grabbed that too.”

His display dominates the post-game chatter.

Kidney: “What I like about Jonathan is that last year he showed great maturity in times of adversity. When things mightn’t have been going his way, he stuck at it and that’s always the sign of a strong person and that’s what came through today.”

Keith Earls: “He was nervous; I think he was awake until three in the morning and ended up getting a sleeping table. I suppose he was more excited than anything but that certainly didn’t show in his performance.”

jonathan-sexton Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Sexton was named man of the match on his Ireland debut. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Fiji coach Glen Ella: “The new number 10 was outstanding and has a bright future for Ireland for many years to come.”

The papers will make for enjoyable reading for the Sexton family.

“From the time Sexton fielded the kick-off in Saturday’s clash with Fiji and set off on a scything 50-metre run, he was like a man inspired and looked every inch the international out-half. Despite the horrendous weather conditions his handling, kicking, passing and decision-making were virtually flawless.” – Charlie Mulqueen, The Irish Examiner.

“On the basis of Saturday’s performance, there is no one obvious strength, in that he is comfortable doing it all. This is what separates him from others. Although he is still learning, he is clever enough not to rely on one aspect of his game. Instead, he is hungry to push the boundaries on all aspects of the 10 role, be it the deft touch, tough conversion, the clear-out or the defence of his channel. He is learning fast and I would not be slow to exposing him to more.” – Liam Toland, The Irish Independent.

*********************

Sexton keeps his place for the South Africa game. A couple of weeks ago, he told The42 that his outstanding memory of that experience, his first against a Tier 1 nation, was looking around and thinking, ‘Do I belong on this pitch?’ 

He did. Across another inspired performance, Sexton kicked all of Ireland’s points through the thick Croke Park fog in a 15-10 win against the world champions which saw the home team end the year unbeaten. 

He started three games in the following year’s Six Nations, and by the end of 2010, was established as Ireland new starting out-half.

It didn’t take him long to feel right at home as an Ireland international.

“He wouldn’t have been barking orders but he would have challenged everything,” Trimble adds. 

“I remember sitting in a meeting room before he became a viable alternative to ROG, and he just challenged senior players who I don’t think had ever really been challenged. 

“Coming into that environment and challenging everything, it was really healthy and a refreshing take on things. I remember him getting into, not arguments, but just reasonably heated conversations and discussions with senior players in meeting rooms.

“It was interesting,” Trimble laughs. “I don’t want to say who they are.

“I was in that position with Johnny before through U21s or whatever, and I learned very quickly, don’t just throw something out there if you haven’t thought it through and come locked and loaded. He’ll challenge you, and he did that.”

Thirteen years down the line, not much has changed.

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