Johnny Sexton, the resolute perfectionist with one last shot at World Cup glory

Veteran Ireland captain’s demanding streak has not dimmed as he eyes final tilt at winning Rugby World Cup aged 38

Thirteen minutes to play in the final and St Mary’s College are up 7-6 against Belvedere. It’s the senior cup, and they have won it once in the last three decades of trying. Their fly-half, Joey Connolly, scored the only try in the seventh minute and they have been hanging on to the lead for almost an hour now, while the rain’s been coming down in sheets. Connolly is just off, and here’s his replacement, a skinny kid called Johnny Sexton, running a loop on the 22. Before the game, Sexton has bet the boys he’ll drop a goal, and now he’s dropping into the pocket, back, back, back, and the scrum-half has snapped the ball and Sexton’s swinging his boot and the ball’s up, up, up into the wind.

It finished 10-6, “Cool Sexton Grasps the Moment” was the headline in the next day’s Irish Times, and you can bet his family still has the clipping, 21 years on.

Even then they didn’t seem to believe in him, not the way he did. Sexton didn’t get picked for the Irish schools side that year. He did the season after, for a tour to Australia, but he didn’t get a game, or even a spot on the bench. While the lads he had played with and against were in the Leinster academy, he was studying chemistry at University College Dublin, drinking pints and playing against grown men for St Mary’s at the weekends. It was the old hooker Mark McDermott who spotted him, when he was scouting Gareth Steenson for Ireland Under-21s. Sexton scored a couple, kicked a few, and next thing he was in McDermott’s U21 squad for the junior World Cup. Still didn’t get a game, though.

Screenshot of a young Johnny Sexton kicking the winning drop-goal in the 2002 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at Lansdowne Road
A young Johnny Sexton kicks the winning drop-goal in the 2002 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at Lansdowne Road. Photograph: -

In the beginning he hadn’t wanted to be a rugby player. Football was his game. He was a Manchester United fan and idolised Roy Keane. One day Keane will come into the Irish camp to talk to the squad, and the lads will ask Sexton to do a Q&A with him. He’ll spend the night before writing a list of questions, and then, in the end, Keane will only let him ask one of them then spend the next two hours talking off the top of his head. The boys give Sexton an awful slagging, but he was hanging on every word. Standards, Keane says, have nothing to do with culture or any of your other buzzwords, they’re about expectations, what you demand of yourself and everyone else.

In the early days at Leinster, Sexton was a slope-shouldered sprat of a back, with a sweet pass, and more attitude and ambition than any of the older players liked. Their coach, Michael Cheika, would rip into him over the smallest thing. He was testing him, teaching him what he’d need to make it as a professional. And Sexton was used to it, it wasn’t so different to the way he had been raised, when his dad gave him a clip around the ear if he misbehaved. Sexton had to understudy Felipe Contepomi and hated it. He wanted to get on running things. Cheika still talks about the dirty looks Sexton used to give him from his spot on the bench.

A handful of minutes one season, a handful more the next. Leinster in those days were a soft touch, third, second, third in the league, quarters, semis, quarters in the cup. Sexton kept pushing himself and everyone else. It was Brian O’Driscoll who called him Rat, because of the ratty way he carried on in training. O’Driscoll could be pretty hard himself, but then he was O’Driscoll. Sexton was a kid, who had won nothing. Until that day in 2009, and the semi-final against Munster. Contepomi did a cruciate ligament in the 25th minute. Sexton came on and kicked two conversions and a penalty in a 25-6 victory.

Johnny Sexton lookks dejected after Leinster’s Champions Cup final defeat
Sexton struggled to keep his composure after Leinster’s heartbreaking Champions Cup final defeat. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Three weeks later, Leinster won the first of their four European titles, and he kicked a drop goal from halfway. Leinster were his team now. In time Ireland would be, too. For years he was behind Ronan O’Gara, or sometimes over him, shouting down from above, as O’Gara kneeled on the floor in the moments after Gordon D’Arcy had scored in the corner in that very same game against Munster.

Sexton didn’t discriminate. He was hard on himself and hard on everyone else. He was fly-half, it was his job to run the team. It was a question of standards. It didn’t matter if you were the biggest forward in the pack, or had a hundred caps. O’Driscoll got it, so did Sexton’s own best friend, Eoin Reddan. “Look after your own shit!” Reddan said as he shoulder-barged past after Sexton ripped into him about a loose pass in training. Sexton ran him down and took a swing at him,and their teammates had to tear them apart. Sexton knew the way he behaved pissed his teammates off, O’Driscoll used to warn him about it. But he didn’t change. He couldn’t. And besides if you couldn’t handle it, he said, how did you expect to cope when you had 80,000 screaming at you?

It was nothing he didn’t expect of himself. When they lost, Sexton would lie awake late into the night turning his decisions over in his head, torturing himself with the ones he got wrong. Lose the last game of the season and he would be stewing on it all summer. They had to be better, smarter, sharper, faster, harder. More professional. For too long, he reckoned, Irish rugby had run on emotion, but emotion wasn’t enough. It was standards that mattered. Not just for the players, but coaches, referees, and administrators, anyone whose mistakes got in the way of what he and the team were trying to do.

Richard Hibbard almost took his head off on the Lions tour in 2013. “For fuck’s sake lads, how many more times does it have to be explained to you?” So did Juandré Kruger in Paris, in that period where he went off to join Racing 92 on a point of principle because he was so annoyed with the union. Well Sexton was used to the damage. He’s been a marked man for the last decade. He said once that the threat of physical injury was the only bit of the game that scared him. But you would never have known it. Wonder, even, if it might have been better for him if he had worried about it more.

Driving, driving, driving, all the time. Leinster moved from Donnybrook to their new ground, went from squeezing, all 35 of them, into Cheika’s old office to changing at home and arriving for games dressed in their kit. From working out in the local leisure centre to their purpose‑built facility at UCD, with its 3G pitch and Olympic pool and banks of laptops and TVs. Ireland, too, moved from Lansdowne Road to the Aviva. They had been lifelong underdogs, but turned, over the course of his career with them, into the world’s No 1 team. There was a first grand slam in 61 years in 2009, then a second in 2018, then a third in 2023. In 2012 Sexton had played in the team that were beaten 60-0 at the end of a 3-0 whitewash in New Zealand, then a decade later, he played in the one that beat them back 32-22 in the deciding match of a 2-1 series victory.

Johnny Sexton lifts the Six Nations after their grand slam win
Sexton helped Ireland win the Six Nations grand slam this year. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho/Shutterstock

They say he should know better by now, they say maybe he’s mellowed with age, or since he became a father. But here he is in May, walking towards Jaco Peyper and his two assistant referees in the minutes after the Champions Cup final. Leinster have just lost to La Rochelle by a point. Sexton wasn’t playing. He is injured and has been watching from the sidelines in his suit. But he is on the pitch now, and he is pointing his finger at the three of them. “It’s a fucking disgrace you can’t get the big decisions right,” he tells them. Sexton likes Peyper, has made a point of praising him in the past, but he is not thinking about that now, maybe he’s not thinking much at all. He watches them go up to get their medals and swears again.

They banned him for three matches after that. His first game back will be Ireland’s first at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, against Romania in Bordeaux this Saturday.

They will be the last games of his long career, one last run at the one and only title he hasn’t won, yet. He will be driving them hard as ever, same as he always has.


Andy Bull

The GuardianTramp

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