'Do I think I can get to the World Cup? I think I can' - Sexton keen to push on

The out-half will be 37 when the tournament in France rolls around.

Sexton will make his return for Ireland against Scotland this weekend.
Sexton will make his return for Ireland against Scotland this weekend.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

JOHNNY SEXTON IS backing himself to continue performing at the highest level and believes he can play on through to the 2023 World Cup.

The 35-year-old Ireland captain is one of several high-profile players out of contract next June but the IRFU has not started any contract negotiations yet due to the financial uncertainty caused by Covid-19.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora has expressed his hope that negotiations will get underway in January and Sexton is keen on extending his central contract with the union.

Nucifora said the IRFU will judge Sexton on his form, rather than his age, when it comes to those contract talks.

As Sexton gets set to return from a hamstring injury this weekend for Ireland’s Autumn Nations Cup clash with Scotland, the out-half stated his belief that he could play through until the 2023 World Cup, when he will be 37.

“I feel good when I’m out there on the pitch and now it’s just about getting out there and performing to prove that there’s more in me,” said Sexton.

“I feel there is, I feel I can get to another level and the day that’s not there is the day I’ll walk away.

“Look, I haven’t had those discussions yet about staying on. We’ll do that when the time is right and when those things start in January or whenever they do.

“There’s been guys in teams over the years that have gone to World Cups at 37, 38. Brad Thorn, a guy I played with who is my inspiration at the moment, those type of guys – Richie McCaw winning a World Cup at the age he did, Dan Carter having an incredible World Cup having been written off and struggling with injuries for numerous years and then coming back and having that impact.

“Do I think I can get there? I think I can. But at the age you’re at, you’ve got to take it one year at a time. The big ‘if’ now is next year if you do stay on and if you can keep your fitness and form.

johnny-sexton Sexton has missed the last two weekends with a hamstring injury. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There’s a lot to go into it but I’m still hungry, I still love the game, I still love competing, I still love training and being part of this team with Ireland and Leinster. I don’t see any reason to stop.”

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Sexton said he has spoken with former Leinster and All Blacks lock Thorn a few times about longevity and cites ex-Leinster lock Nathan Hines as another of a player whose career lasted into their late 30s, while there have been Irish examples too.

“There’s the Irish guys over the years that have done it – Donncha O’Callaghan, Peter Stringer,” said Sexton.

“I played with Paul O’Connell obviously. You’re only a big injury away from being finished totally, no matter what age you are. Paulie, I think, would have continued on much longer if he didn’t pick up that really bad hamstring injury.

“I spoke to Brian [O'Driscoll] a few years ago about that longevity side of things and he gave me his opinion on that. So there are guys who have done it. It’s not like if I do it, I do stay on and continue to play, it’s not like it’s totally alien or no one has done it before, especially being an out-half. I’m not a player who has relied massively on pace over the years, so we’ll see what happens.”

Of course, Sexton has already been written off by many rugby supporters in recent times, as well as some in the media.

Some believe Ireland need to begin the process of replacing the Leinster man at out-half over the coming year or so.

Sexton said that kind of opinion only serves to motivate him to continue proving the doubters wrong.

“Yeah, massively,” said Sexton.

“Why not? All I want to do is be the best I can be, first of all, and if that means I’m the best out-half for any given game or whatever, then why shouldn’t you play? That’s the attitude I’ve got.

“I want to be the best out-half in Ireland and I still have aspirations for other things as well. Why not?

“I’m not going to just retire because you guys want me to. I’ll keep going if I feel good and I feel hungry. I know some past players want to retire me as well, but I’ll crack on.”

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Murray Kinsella

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