Captain’s mantle sits well on Johnny Sexton’s shoulders
Leinster leader says he has no plans to take up Ireland captaincy for World Cup 2019
Johnny Sexton scores Leinster’s third try in the European Rugby Champions Cup Round 2 game against Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium last Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Not so long ago it was Johnny Sexton who was going to “be a big figure” in Paris. Different times, different rules regarding playing for Ireland.
Sexton was not prohibited by the IRFU from responding to the call of Joe Schmidt, while Simon Zebo is casting himself adrift of a possible World Cup. But the stand-in Leinster captain is not vexed about how Zebo will manage in an environment that can be idiosyncratic and strange to the familiar structures of province and country.
Sexton believes the wing and fullback’s style of play will dovetail nicely with the loose structures of French rugby, and his occasional flamboyance may even get them to love him.
“I don’t know how much physicality would be out on the wings and full-back,” laughs Sexton. “There are some big wingers actually . . . if he plays against Montpellier every week.
“Look, I think they love that type of player in France, like Simon: skill, flair, attacking sort of, can do something out of nothing. I am sure they will love him down there. Yeah, it’s pretty unstructured as well. He will be allowed to have a free role and do what he wants and that is where he is at his best, I think.
“He’s a big figure down there [Munster], a big player for them. I’m sure they’re all gutted he’s gone.”
Sexton, who is growing into his role as captain of Leinster, says he has no concrete plans to take up the Ireland job, that it is for the players to decide. He also believes any Irish player considering taking the higher French salary should do it after their international career has finished.
In a fleeting bout of self-criticism, he points out that in his two years in Paris Ireland won the Six Nations twice. But the circumstances were different then and the fact that Zebo will be out of the international swirl will help him to focus and bring his game on in France.
“Well there’s no break,” says Sexton. “So when I went over there I’d just come off the back of a Lions tour. I played my first game four weeks later in pre-season, played 12, 13 games in a row and came back for November, then went straight back there [Paris].
“So there’s no break in the season, whereas if you’re in Racing and not playing international rugby there’ll be loads of breaks because you’ll have the two-week break at Christmas, a week break in November, you’ll probably get time off during the Six Nations.
That’s one of the big benefits of being here, that you are looked after extremely well
“So as a non-international playing player, it’s not so bad. It’s when you have to try and do both I think is when you run into difficulty. So if I was to advise anyone, I’d say wait until the end of your international career before you decide to go over. But that’s in hindsight.”
He points out that the English players who came back from New Zealand after the Lions tour went straight back into their clubs and played round one of the Premiership.
Welfare, he says, is the IRFU’s trump card and has been responsible for the majority of players remaining, betting on a longer career even if it means a lower salary.
“It’s definitely a benefit,” he says. “We had four weeks off at the end of the Lions and a good block of work to get ready for a season. If you weren’t looked after . . . even some of the English guys went back in and played Premiership round one. Time will tell if it takes its toll later on in the season. That’s one of the big benefits of being here, that you are looked after extremely well.”
Zebo, Sexton also points out, was only picked by Schmidt when he conformed and carried out the Irish coach’s instructions to the letter. Schmidt has a low tolerance for players adlibbing.
“Once Simon has been doing what Joe wanted of him he’s got picked because he’s so talented and so good,” he says.
It’s something I have been trying to work on, trying to deal with the officials in the right way and to be better at that
But the season has become a different canvas for Sexton, and when Isa Nacewa was injured Sexton was asked to captain Leinster. It has been a work-in-progress, by his own admission, and he has had to reconsider how to deal with officials and channel his energy on the pitch.
Captaincy of Ireland is not something he discounts, but his discomfort at talking about it or being seen to promote himself in any way as a contender is palpable.
It is an honour bestowed on players, he says, and not something to build a campaign around. It seems even more distasteful as Rory Best is in situ.
“Look, it’s something I have been trying to work on, trying to deal with the officials in the right way and to be better at that. I always go into the game with the best intentions,” he says.
“But when you are in the heat of the game you can let things slip a bit. At times I have been decent at it, other times not so good.
“Again, it’s [Ireland] not something I want to talk about too much. It’s not something I want to promote myself for. It’s something voted by your peers or the management, that is an honour, that is offered to you or not offered to you.”
Best’s hamstring may soon bring that one to a head.
Johnny Sexton was speaking in his capacity as an Aer Lingus ambassador