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Lessons from O'Callaghan and Stringer ensure 'hungry' Sexton not winding down any time soon

Trophy-less since his return from Paris, the out-half is hoping to make his presence felt with Leinster this season.

Updated at 12.00 

THE FIXTURES ARE out, there’s no getting away from the fact that a new rugby season is upon us. Nor is there any disguising that Johnny Sexton is not yet in the full of his health as he returns to his province for pre-season.

Leinster Home Jersey “Own the Blue” Launch Canterbury has revealed the new Leinster home jersey for the 2017/18 season which is available for purchase from Canterbury.com and sports retailers countrywide. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

A month to the day after he helped seal a drawn Lions series in New Zealand, the out-half still nurses the scars in a north Dublin design studio where Leinster are taking promo shots for their new kit.

Changed out of matchday attire and into Sean Cronin’s tracksuit, his wrist is bandaged up and in a splint, but the protective boot he wore home has been shelved and he issues a positive update on his ankle.

“(I’ve) started pre-season so things won’t hold me back too much. I’ll get a good block of work under my belt before the start of the season. Last year was obviously a pretty disruptive pre-season coming back from shoulder surgery. I just felt I didn’t get the block of work I needed in that summer. Hopefully this will stand to me a bit more and get the work that I need to get in.”

It’s part of the territory for every rugby player, but for Sexton more than most the topic of conversation invariably begins with his current ailment or fitness before rugby matters filter in. So the way in which he showed off his durability throughout a sapping Lions tour at the end of a long season did wonders to dispel the injury prone label that has been ascribed to him.

The out-half turned 32 in the days following the third Test in New Zealand, but as a new-look Pro14 tournament beckons, he’s not looking down at his injuries wondering how much more of this his body and mind can take. Instead, he’s looking at his international captain and other one-time provincial foes who have made longevity their hallmark.

“But I feel hungry. Last season was a disappointment in many ways so I’m hungry and want to keep going. I can’t say how long for because no one knows. You see guys like Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer still going to their 40th and Rory Best playing on a Lions tour, turning 35 (next week) – he won’t thank me for telling people that – it gives you hope if you look after yourself.

British and Irish Lions Jonathan Sexton Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You’ve got people coming in keeping you fresh and hungry; Stuart at Leinster, guys coming in with Ireland and Joe still being there, Faz (Andy Farrell) came in last year really bringing more to the party…”

Thing is, Sexton’s hunger never looks anything short of voracious. Will it be a case where he’ll have to be pushed, rather than make the jump into retirement himself?

“I think people know, that’s what all the lads who have gone before me have said: You just know.

“You don’t feel the way you feel now coming into pre-season, a bit like yourself,” he jokingly nods to a journalist, “‘not another season’. I don’t feel like that at the moment, that’s not saying it won’t happen in the next few years, I don’t know, but I’m happy and hungry at the moment and I just want to crack on, get a good few games under my belt, especially for Leinster as I didn’t play as much as I would have liked last season.”

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He hopes to be hitting his straps and free of his bandages by week five of the Pro14, time enough to get some game time before facing Munster at the Aviva Stadium and then get set for Europe.

To a man, players returning from a Lions tour all point to it being a valuable learning experience even if it meant a long grueling summer away from home and family. The modern game has witnessed increasing movement and transfer of coaching knowledge and skills between countries, but for Sexton the theory still holds true.

“I think you look around at the guys beside you and the guys playing against you, and they’re the top players in the southern and northern hemisphere, and you do learn a lot in terms of what you need to improve on, what you’re good at and what you need to keep going with.

“It’s massive, I think four years ago I learned more on that tour than maybe I did with any tour I went on, in comparison to New Zealand in 2012 or the World Cup.

“No matter what the result, once you go in with that attitude (you learn a lot).

“I learned a lot on this tour as well. From some of the conditioning stuff the guys were doing to some of the kicking practice other lads are doing.

“Small things like that, but stuff that, if you take on board, it makes a difference.”

And it will keep making a difference in Sexton’s game for quite some time yet.

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