There is a reckoning that takes place in every player's head when the clock moves on. The realisation that they are playing in the twilight of their career demands it. It's a one-way journey. There is no way back. Johnny Sexton knows this. He said as much two days ago.
“When you come towards the end, I think the last couple of years you’re going to remember more than the years previous,” said Sexton. “So, I want to, whether it’s this year or the next year, whether it’s the World Cup, I want to finish on a high.”
His words struck the same defiant tone as they always have and his declaration that he will never get over Warren Gatland leaving him out of the summer Lions tour to South Africa, was the same variant strain of competitive instinct we have witnessed from the outhalf since he first wore an Irish shirt in the RDS against Fiji in 2009.
Sexton was not only airing his disappointment at being left out of the last Lions tour he was likely to have played. But at 36 he was semaphoring to those who would have his shirt in Leinster and Ireland that if his body agrees with his head he will be around and playing at the World Cup in France at 38.
Some would see that as preposterous and unrealistic. But that is to miss the point of Sexton. It’s to miss the energy of always being driven and always stubbornly competitive. It’s to misread the mindset of someone who plays to be the best, who has dedicated most of his life to getting to and staying at the top of rugby.
For players like Sexton the enjoyment of the game is drawn from being a leading edge, winning the clutch moments when all might be deemed lost.
In 2018 one such moment presented itself in Paris. France led in the Six Nations match 13-12 as it moved into the final stages. More than two minutes into injury time and after 41 consecutive phases of Ireland pounding the French defence to little effect, the ball is fed back to Sexton.
He is placed a few steps inside the French half. To run or to punt. He backs himself, where the odds of making it are loaded against. Still, he takes the drop-kick. It is massive with huge hang time. But the ball sails over and in the last move and Ireland win the match.
Sexton now identifying the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a possibility is not delusional, it's motivational and it's about the persuasive, galvanising power of self-belief.
Some people don’t like to see that snarling focus and the refusal to give way to what is coming up behind. Some see it as over inflated self worth and a sense of entitlement.
Being openly ambitious is not always pretty to look at or something to like because it reveals only one aspect of a many sided character, the ruthless yearning, the passion and self-first desire.
But it is something to admire and it is something to respect. It is something every player would want on his side. It is also genetically determined and requires the player to have worked out, not just the gamble but why he is taking it at that moment. Against France, Ireland had run out of options. The French had them pegged. Sexton and a Hail Mary was the only option and he grasped that too.
Roger Federer has it and people love him all the more for it. Serena Williams has it but it sometimes draws out the worst in others. Michael Jordan had it and like Williams went unloved but adored and feared. Cristiano Ronaldo, burning hot but uncool, similarly aged to Sexton and far from the affections of many, has it too.
In October 2020 Sexton was asked to explain the bulldog chewing a wasp look on his face after being substituted off at the Stade de France. There were 11 minutes left in Ireland’s game, again against France and two converted tries could have turned the match in Ireland’s favour.
Andy Farrell had other ideas and as the Irish captain walked off the pitch muttering and shaking his head, finally glaring towards the stand where the coaching staff were located, it was more than disappointment but challenging. But Sexton felt it and he couldn't suppress the impulse, so he went with it.
“I was very disappointed coming off, like everyone would be,” he said in explanation afterwards. “You’re losing the game and you’re coming off, so what would you like me to be doing?”
Almost a year later, he is making similar sounds and they are all in character. That’s why, he says, he will never get over the Lions mauling. But it has far from left him deflated and if anything, it has again set him into challenge mode. Told he wasn’t good enough in the glare of the summer, he will shine in the shadows of autumn and winter.
“I’ve had some, obviously a big setback last year with the non-selection and that’s given me a little boost,” he said on Wednesday. “Not that I needed it. I felt that I’m still motivated to achieve with Leinster and Ireland and I still want to win more.”
Sexton’s twilight reckoning, a window into the ball-of-fire of a rugby soul.