Six Nations 2023: Ireland captain Johnny Sexton keen on tackling Wales and not Warren Gatland

Fit-again outhalf says missing out on Lions tour to South Africa acted as a motivation over last few years

It’s a diverting subplot, and can be easily over-egged, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless, and in the build-up to Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations opener with Ireland, Warren Gatland has given the topic fresh oxygen by again admitting that he may have been wrong not to pick Johnny Sexton on the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa two years ago.

The pair have met since at the Six Nations launch in central London two weeks ago, and shook hands amicably. In truth, Gatland may well have done Sexton a favour at the time, and by extension Leinster and Ireland. But while the decision is in the past, it certainly rankled with Sexton for a while, as well as providing motivation.

The rationale for his omission – namely the doubts around his ability to play on three successive weekends – were refuted when he started all three Tests in Ireland’s series win in New Zealand a year later.

Asked at his captain’s media briefing at another sun-drenched day at The Campus in Quinta da Lago if he had a point to prove to Gatland at the Principality Stadium, Sexton reasoned: “I don’t get to tackle him or I don’t get to do anything to him.”


Did he want to, it was suggested to him?

Laughing, he said: “You’re trying to put words into my mouth now!

“I’m not playing against him, I’m playing against Wales. It’s his team obviously but look, what happened two years ago, it’s gone now. You don’t get it back. Of course, did it motivate me? Yeah. It gave me a bit of time to mull things over and go: ‘Do I want to go out like this or do I want to go out in two or three years’ time at the top?’

“It was gutting. I’d saved my Lions Test jerseys and we had them framed and I said to Laura ‘I’m not putting them on the wall until the South African tour was over’ because I wanted the three tours together. But that’s life. Everyone has setbacks.

“You look at someone of the calibre of Garry [Ringrose]. He’s 28 and he’s never been on a Lions tour. Just with pure luck and injuries. I’ve been very lucky to go on two but you’ve got to take the motivation sometimes where you can.”

With unerring timing, Sexton removed the protective mask from his face for the first time at Wednesday’s training session following an operation for an injury which he sustained in Leinster’s New Year’s Day win over Connacht.

Nor has it left any scars.

“It’s in the hairline. I didn’t want to ruin my good looks.”

Pointing to his upper cheekbone or left temple, Sexton said: “Injured there, make sure it’s aligned and then it heels away. It’s amazing really.

“I couldn’t sleep that night obviously. I did research on basketball players that had played a week later, seven days later, with the mask. They were allowed. We’re not allowed wear masks.

“I’d read things like that and spoke to doctors, and they were pretty optimistic and positive that I’d be back in no time.”

Sexton had only just recovered from the calf injury he sustained in the warm-up to the Australian game in November, and a tad disconcertingly, he has only played six games and 335 minutes this season, albeit his performances after lay-offs have always allayed such concerns before.

“Well, we’ll see on Saturday. You’ve got to commit to training, train like each day is a match so you can make a mistake and learn. You can make mistakes that are with proper intent and learn from it properly.

“If you go out and train half-arsed you won’t learn anything. So that’s one thing I’ve been able to do over the years, to commit to training properly because I want to. I love training so we’ll see how we go on Saturday.

“I’m sure the pace of the game will be tough. We’ll be blowing at times. We all will. It will shock everyone, not only me who hasn’t played in a month. I’ve only played once since November so we’ll see how we go.”

Sexton has only missed two games in the last five editions of the Six Nations – the two defeats by France in the past two seasons. The tournament has always been a huge part of his life.

“I remember going to loads of games. I don’t remember the details too much but I remember being in the stadium for a Scotland game. I think Brian [o’Driscoll] might have scored a hat-trick,” he recalls of Ireland’s 43-22 win in 2002 when he was 16-years-old.

“The Scottish guy beside me fell asleep for the game. I spent most of my time looking at him wondering why he was asleep. Whatever was in his flagon in his hip pocket might have had something to do with it.

“But memories like that. Keith Wood, I remember the air of excitement around when he got the ball. They were my earliest memories.”

On the eve of his 14th Six Nations campaign and 57th game in the Championship, he relishes the unique flavour of the sport’s oldest international tournament.

“That kind of atmosphere, the anticipation, the bus drives into the ground, the rivalries; it’s got everything really, doesn’t it? I’m as nervous this week as I was however many years ago, 2010. You don’t always get that with every competition, so it’s very special.

“It’s hard to win, it’s hard to do well in. Every single game is tough, for each reason different and that’s what makes it so special.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times