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Gerry Thornley: Age just a number as Johnny Sexton hits the ground running

Missing Lions tour may be a blessing for outhalf – and for Leinster and Irish rugby

Warren Gatland and Gregor Townsend may well have erred in not bringing Johnny Sexton on the Lions' tour to South Africa. He was, after all, the form outhalf in the Six Nations. But, however disappointed Sexton would have been himself, they probably did him, Leinster and Irish rugby a huge favour.

For starters, from a selfishly Irish or Leinster perspective, being spared the physical demands of playing South African opposition may have been a blessing.

In any event, after playing less than half an hour’s rugby since the Six Nations, he was afforded an extended summer break and a complete pre-season with Leinster from the get-go. As Leo Cullen observed in light of this rarity, it afforded Sexton an opportunity to work with the entire squad from the first day of pre-season and granted the younger players the chance of getting to know him better.

Sexton hit the ground running with a commanding and assured performance when steering Leinster to their opening night win over the Bulls at the Aviva Stadium. Save for last season’s pandemic-delayed start, the last time Sexton played in Leinster’s first competitive game of the season was away to the Scarlets in September 2009.


Pretty much all of Sexton's involvements had a positive effect and, after an initial miss, he landed his final four conversions, two of them inches from the touchline

He looks as fit, strong, sharp and on top of his game as ever. To counter Zebre’s use of shooters and an outside-in defence, Sexton used three-man forward pods to drift behind them and take pull-back passes from the likes of Ed Byrne, Scott Penny and Ryan Baird, or use Ciarán Frawley as first receiver and wrap around him, to put the outside backs into space.

This led to the break-out from Leinster’s own 22 before half-time, the move which culminated in his double skip pass for Adam Byrne’s try and the move which ended with Ed Byrne’s try after the break. None the worse for being flipped on to his upper back, he then saw how a 14-man Zebre had narrowed up to cross kick for the latter’s second try when playing with house money.

Pretty much all of Sexton's involvements had a positive effect and, after an initial miss, he landed his final four conversions, two of them inches from the touchline. This augmented his 100 per cent return against the Bulls and his haul of 29 from 30 kicks in the Six Nations. Like his performances, his goal-kicking has been world-class for years and both are pretty much taken for granted.

Hugh Cahill no doubt spoke for many when exclaiming in commentary after that cross-kick: “He is still by far and away Ireland’s best outhalf. By far and away.”

But to hell with his age – as long as he is fit, healthy and motivated, that’s actually how it should be. Sexton is most probably Ireland’s greatest outhalf. He mightn’t reach Ronan O’Gara’s haul of caps and points, it is true, but he became the first Irish player to be named World Player of the Year since Keith Wood in the innaugural year of the award (granted, it was an injustice that Brian O’Driscoll wasn’t in 2009), is a Grand Slam winner, a three-time Six Nations champion and a four-time Heineken Champions Cup winner, as well as helping to claim a host of other scalps, be it the All Blacks twice or two unbeaten Lions Test series.

No sign of waning

That Sexton's powers show no sign of waning should be a cause for celebration. True, there may be fewer opportunities for Ross and Harry Byrne with Leinster, and Joey Carbery with Ireland. Without URC games on Test weekends it will be a particularly tricky balancing act for Leo Cullen and the Leinster brains trust, not least as Sexton and the two Byrnes are all out of contract at the end of the season.

One ventures that part of the reason for Sexton's form is the heat from the two Byrnes. While Ross Byrne did not have his most commanding game against the Dragons a week beforehand, that was unusual. He has invariably delivered, not least when replacing Sexton against Exeter in that quarter-final win when having a big hand in two tries and nailing his kick.

Leinster may have missed Sexton in the semi-final defeat by La Rochelle, as they did against Toulouse back in 2010, but that was the first time Leinster had lost in Europe with the elder Byrne starting. In 22 Champions Cup games the only other time he was on the losing side was as a late replacement against Saracens in September last year at an empty Aviva, by which stage the die was cast.

He has been the main man at “10” for much of Leinster’s four Pro14s in a row, and his goal-kicking rose to 89 per cent last season, when he missed only one of 25 kicks in the Pro14.

The younger Byrne can’t seem to catch a break. He was due to make his European debut against Northampton last December but strained his back in the warm-up. His next big opportunity was at home to Munster in the Rainbow Cup last April, when he pulled up after five minutes with a hamstring injury.

Last Saturday would have been another opportunity for Byrne to showcase his talents after being eased into the Test arena for the last 26 minutes against the USA last July.

Overcooked penalty

While there were a couple of missed conversions and an overcooked penalty to the corner, there was also a fine touch-finder with not much of an angle, his contestables were on the money and there were some nice touches on the ball, particularly a sharp one-handed flick.

The Byrnes will have to grasp their opportunity as Ben Healy did in marshalling Munster's impressive win away to the Scarlets in tandem with Neil Cronin. That was only Healy's ninth start for Munster (and third since last January), so Carbery will be feeling the heat. He has been solid, and his goalkicking has been good, albeit he hasn't rediscovered that distinctive swagger. But he's a class act, and hopefully nothing that a scything break and/or try wouldn't revive.

Meantime, ol’ man river keeps on rollin’ along. Starting his 14th season with Leinster either side of that two-year spell with Racing 92, it’s clear the fire still burns.

There was that Lions slight, the yearning for a fifth star, the Six Nations and captaining his province and his country, and of course the desire to atone for the last three World Cups by reaching France 2023.

Let’s hope he does, for Ireland will still be a better team for having him there.