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'We'll see the desire levels' - Cullen hints Sexton could play beyond 2023 World Cup

The out-half is contracted until the end of next year’s tournament in France.

Leinster out-half Johnny Sexton.
Leinster out-half Johnny Sexton.
Image: Tom Maher/INPHO

LEO CULLEN HAS hinted that Johnny Sexton could extend his playing career beyond next year’s Rugby World Cup in France.

The Leinster and Ireland out-half’s current IRFU contract runs until the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup – the final of which is set for 28 October – but the 37-year-old remains a hugely influential figure for both club and country. 

Sexton is fresh from steering Ireland to a historic series win in New Zealand and delivered a number of excellent performances across the 2021/22 season as he continues to excel at the top level of the game.

Cullen is currently preparing for a new season with Leinster and Sexton firmly remains first-choice out-half at the province. Brothers Ross and Harry Byrne have yet to seriously challenge the Ireland captain, while Ciarán Frawley is expected to get more opportunites in the Leinster 10 shirt after producing some promising displays for Ireland’s midweek team in New Zealand.

“There are players beneath Johnny, they’ve built up a tonne of experience and the way he has managed himself has been unbelievable really, he’s out on tour in New Zealand playing as well as he ever has. Like, it’s remarkable,” Cullen said.

That’s a credit to him and it’s up to the competition to get to his level and past his level to get past him. Lots of people will have a different view as to how that happens but we’ve lots of guys who have come through for us over the last few years and built up vital experience, and they need to keep pushing to try and push past him.

“If Johnny is playing better than them he’ll continue to get picked.”

The player himself did appear to put a date on his retirement earlier this year. In March, on the day the IRFU announced Sexton’s contract extension, the out-half was asked during a press conference if he would be retiring after the World Cup, to which he responded: “Yeah, finished, 2023 World Cup.”

jonathan-sexton-is-tackled-by-all-blacks-brodie-retallick Sexton was superb for Ireland during the summer tour to New Zealand.

However in an interview with Brian O’Driscoll on BT Sport in May, Sexton admitted he hadn’t intended to announce his retirement.

“It was an accident, really, to be honest,” Sexton said. “One of the first questions (during the press conference) was ‘does that mean you’re going to retire after the World Cup?’ and it caught me out.”

Yesterday, Cullen was asked if he has spoken to Sexton about the possibility of staying on with Leinster after his current IRFU contract ends.

“We’ve had all sorts of conversations over the last number of years,” Cullen said.  “So you’re constantly just checking in. We’ll see how he goes. 

“I was just reading, Tom Brady, we’ve been told was old when he was playing, now he’s back at 45 and he’s older than I am!

“We’ll see. When you get on to that stage it’s uncharted territory. It’s still a long way away, the end of the World Cup is over a year away so what does it look like at the end of the season?

“We’re so early in the season now and he’s obviously contracted to post World Cup but yeah, we’ll see the desire levels and all the rest. It’s early days.” 

The future of some of Cullen’s staff has been up for discussion too. The province’s senior coach, Stuart Lancaster, is often linked with some of the top jobs in Europe, with Racing 92 reportedly interesting in bringing the former England boss in at the end of the season, when Laurent Travers is expected to replace Jacky Lorenzetti as president of the Parisian giants.

“He is (staying) at the moment anyway,” Cullen said.

Like us all, the season starts off and that’s not just Stu – there’s tonnes of people out of contract (at the end of the season). We’ll see how it all plays out, it’s the nature of every season, people look in with prying eyes from the outside. It’s just like Felipe [Contepomi] (leaving for Argentina), Andrew Goodman comes in. Seán O’Brien is finishing (at London Irish) as Denis Leamy is finishing (as contact skills coach) here, there’s that timing piece.

“Always at World Cup time there’s always quite a lot of movement as well, in terms of coaches, so you think the 2023 World Cup is this piece on the horizon and there’s all sort of movement. England are looking for coaches, some of the French coaches might move on. Every country has something different, New Zealand have gone early. Everyone’s looking at what’s happened, it changes so bloody fast doesn’t it?

“There’s always these things going on in the background.”

Leinster’s URC season kicks-off with a trip to play Zebre Parma on Saturday. For the first time since 2017, the province head into a new campaign with no silverware to defend, having suffered a heartbreaking defeat to La Rochelle in last season’s Champions Cup final before a shock URC semi-final loss to the Bulls at the RDS.

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Following games against the two Italian URC sides, Leinster head into a testing run of fixtures before the November international window – taking on Ulster, the Sharks, Connacht, Munster and Scarlets.

During that time they are likely to lose a significant number of young players to the Emerging Ireland three-game tour to South Africa. An Ireland A game against a New Zealand XV is also on the cards for November.

“The Ireland A is slightly separate, that’s a one-off game in November which is the same weekend as the South African game,” Cullen continued.

“We play seven (URC) games in a row and we’ll just try and manage our way through them as best we can. 

“You just need to find out what is the effect of that (Emerging Ireland tour), then try to tease your way through it and see how you get on.

“We’ll see how this week unfolds and have a clear picture of who will be available and who won’t be and everyone can make up their own mind after that.

“You’ve got to always work with the system, that’s the system. Do you know what I mean? We’ll always have a healthy debate about certain things in the background – ‘we think this would be good for this person’ – and we just tease it out and we try to get some level of common ground.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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