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World Player of the Year prize would be fitting reward for Sexton's incredible 2018

‘Where he stands out above a lot of the other players is his ability to see things on the pitch and pick the right options.’

THERE WERE PLENTY of bigger impacts, but the tackle which earned one of the loudest roars from the crowd during Ireland’s win over New Zealand was an assisting effort to bundle Ben Smith over the line.

Jacob Stockdale tagged the Highlander first, but any hope of escape was shut down by Johnny Sexton who punched the vibrant air between him and the crowd to celebrate.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates as Ben Smith is forced into touch Sexton celebrates winning a vital line-out. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

It was more than just another fine margin shaded green, Sexton was an almost gladiatorial figure in the moment as 50,000 people sensed a glorious end to an epic contest.

The only way the moment could have been more perfect is if it were Beauden Barrett who Sexton sent stumbling over the line. Because this Sunday night in Monte Carlo, the pair will be going head-to-head again for the sport’s biggest individual honour.

There is a sense that the World Rugby Player of the Year award is more difficult to attain for northern hemisphere players. But this year represents a golden opportunity for Sexton to emulate Keith Wood, Fabien Galthie, Jonny Wilkinson (2001 -2003 respectively), Shane Williams (2008) and Thierry Dusautoir (2011).

This has been the year that Sexton won it all. From Le Drop in Paris to keep Ireland on course for the Grand Slam, to a double success with Leinster. And now Ireland have followed up a first series win in Australia with their first home win over New Zealand.

Johnny Sexton celebrates kicking the winning drop goal Le Drop heard around the world. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

If Sexton is to come out ahead of Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Faf de Klerk and Malcolm Marx it would mark another landmark win over the All Blacks. For a silver fern has stood next to each winner’s name for eight of the past nine years thanks to Barrett, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw (two wins each), Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick.

Watch Sexton play and his burst of pace, passing accuracy, icy nerves and game management are plain to see. When you ask team-mates or his coaches, they consistently speak about his leadership and his character — although reference to the latter is not always entirely complimentary.

“He is a massive standard setter in training and he’s one of our big leaders,” says hooker Niall Scannell in Carton House today.

As a Munster forward, the Corkman naturally has less time allotted to collaborate with Sexton. But the out-half is more than a playmaker to this squad, core players support the coaching staff and Scannell felt the benefit of Sexton’s attacking nous as he was preparing to slot into a starting role for the June series against the Wallabies.

“I was obviously catapulted in a bit late when Rory got injured and he just helped me with little things.

“It’s not like he’s on your case, but when he can pull up a clip and say: ‘in this scenario if you did A B or C.’ It just gives you a better overall understanding and I think I’m at a level now with the Irish gameplan where I have that knowledge now. But I probably didn’t have it to the same extent at the start of the Australia tour.

“Johnny was a huge help to me in that respect so I assume he’s pretty much like that with everyone.”

Jonathan Sexton and Beauden Barrett Sexton tackles Barrett during Ireland's 16-9 win. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sexton has worked hard to become an all-rounder of sorts, a 10 who won’t be hidden away from the defensive line while remaining the key show-runner. The success he has brought Ireland and Leinster this year was made possible in a large part because of his continued presence. The injury absences which curtailed the progress of his teams in earlier years were notable for their absence on his way to unparalleled success.

That physical resilience, it would seem, is borne out of a sustained stretch under the IRFU’s player management programmes rather than any deliberate effort to avoid the contact zones on the field.

“But he’s still doing all that hard work,” argues  Ireland skills coach Richie Murphy when the theory is put to him that Sexton is now more protected.

“I don’t see that as being a massive change in how he has approached the games. He’s still the guy getting off the line making the tackles. I remember last season in the Six Nations him having a pick and go near the line. So, that’s not a guy who is trying to look after himself.

Johnny Sexton and Richie Murphy Murphy and Sexton on the field in Melbourne. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I don’t think he’s ever played the game like that and I don’t think that will actually happen. I think his ability to stay on the pitch is probably, maybe his fitness levels are a little bit higher than what they were 12, 18 months ago maybe.” 

Of the nomination for the World Player of the Year award, Murphy adds:

“I think it’s very fitting. I’ve known him since he was in the Leinster academy and he’s always been a very driven player, massively talented and (had an) unbelievable head for the game.

I think that’s where he stands out for me above a lot of the other players who are out there, his ability to see things on the pitch and pick the right options.”

“There have been some high parts of his career and I think he’s in one of them at the moment. He’s in great form, he’s working hard, his fitness levels look really good. I think he’s in a really good place at the moment.”

On a Monte Carlo stage with another prize would be a better place still.

Originally published at 17.40

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Sean Farrell

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