Johnny Sexton will never thank Warren Gatland and Gregor Townsend for omitting him from last year’s British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, but the rest of Irish rugby will continue to do so as long as it helps to stoke the fires within the uber competitive and driven Irish talisman.
His response has been to lead Ireland to a historic Test series win in New Zealand, when starting all three games to give the lie to the notion that he couldn’t do so a year previously, as well as a Triple Crown and be shortlisted for the World Player of the Year award again.
What’s more, on the eve of leading Ireland out for their final Test of a memorable year against Australia at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 8pm), Sexton himself freely admitted: “The Lions selection still drives me to this day.”
With typical candour, he added: “Any time I feel I’m getting a bit of ahead of myself I just think back to not being picked for that. Again, it’s opinion, isn’t it? The World Player of the Year is a few people’s opinion. They think you’ve done well.
“When it came down to the Lions selection a few important people thought that I wasn’t the right fit for that team, and it hurt like hell. It just shows the fickleness of selection and everything, and you don’t want to go out from international rugby like that. It’s a big motivating factor. I’d rather have got picked and I still think I’d be hungry, but maybe sometimes you need a bit of a stir up like that.”
It still hurts too.
“Of course, yeah. I’ve still never been to South Africa in however many years playing rugby, and I always thought: ‘I’ve never been but it’s going to be that tour’. Like I said, it’s opinion. The coaches thought that I wasn’t the right person for the job, and that’s life. You’ve got to get over it. But you’ve got to use it.”
When the press officer pointed out that Sexton could have gone to Bloemfontein on the Emerging Ireland tour, he quipped: “I didn’t get picked for that either.”
Amid the general obsession with Sexton’s age, it’s anticipated that the World Cup will be his swansong but he’s not of a mind to make any pronouncements yet.
“My brothers are on to me as well. They’re giving me guilt at the moment. They’re saying: ‘What are we going to do when you retire?’ They love coming to the games, they almost feel like they’re playing the game themselves. My wife is not talking to me like that,” he admitted with a wry smile.
“I just need to concentrate on what’s ahead of me, and that’s all I am doing, concentrating on this season and trying to make the most of every opportunity I get, and please God get to the World Cup and then see what happens.”
There is plenty of rugby in between, most immediately the prize of a ninth win in 11 Tests this year. One senses these Wallabies are being widely underrated, but not by Sexton.
“They are an outstanding team with very, very good individuals littered throughout it, that’s the first thing. They have very good coaches and they are Australia!
“They love being the underdog, they love coming to play against teams that are maybe ranked ahead of them, or they see as a scalp, and that’s where they come into their own, and they have done for as long as I can remember watching them. They’ve always had big performances in them, and they will be no different this week.”
Different from the Springboks too.
“You are playing against a team that plays very different when they have the ball. They’ll defend differently when we have the ball.
“It’s going to be incredibly tough, and we know that, and we are building up for an incredibly tough Test match. I think the weather is to rain down pretty bad for most of the day, so we have to maybe adapt our game to suit the conditions. But we will see how the weather unfolds over the next few days.”
Sexton remains invaluable but leadership is emerging around him. He received the plaudits for going to the corner in the 46th minute against the Springboks, a decision which led to the Josh van der Flier try off a maul. Interestingly though, James Ryan had twice insisted on going to the corner after Sexton had twice suggested going for the posts.
“So, you can’t argue with him when it comes to that because you have to back him. They thought they had a move that worked but it’s fine margins, isn’t it?
“But fair play to him. He [Ryan] grabbed big moments in the game. Take the end of that first half and defending the maul, he steals the lineout and then we clear our lines. There was a few big plays from him in the game and he was outstanding physicality-wise, leading from the front like he always does. He had a real edge to him in that game.”
There was a similar debate prior to one of Ireland’s key tries in the Third Test against the All Blacks, and sometimes, Sexton added, you have to put oneself in the minds of a defending team.
“You’ve got to flip the psychology sometimes as well. He’s come up with those two big plays over the last few big games we’ve had, so we’ll see what pans out on Saturday.”