Johnny Sexton: ‘I feel that I can still contribute and that’s the most important thing’

Ireland captain not planning to ease down anytime soon as he sets time for endgame

Not everyone is Brian O'Driscoll, and so not everyone gets to pretty much pen their own career swansong. The great one signed off from Test match rugby in fitting style by helping Ireland to the 2014 Six Nations title with a thrilling 22-20 win in Paris. Yes, that ended things off nicely.

World Cups more often mark the final days of an international player’s career, which has meant plenty of anti-climactic finales for Irish players over the years. But some, such as John Hayes in 2011 or Gordon D’Arcy in 2015, didn’t even make it to their intended farewells.

Johnny Sexton has signed his final contract with the IRFU to see him through to his fourth World Cup next year, at which point he has confirmed he will retire. But as he well knows, signing a contract until then is no guarantee he'll make it to France 2023.

“The thought of doing that [not reaching it] is one that you kind of go: ‘Ah, I’ll just finish up now.’ But [there is] the want to go on and I feel so much part of this team and I love this team so much and it’s the same set-up with Leinster. I don’t feel like I want to walk away and I feel that I can still contribute and I want to and that’s the most important thing. I love coming to work every day.

“So, when I added everything up, it was an easy decision and there’s always that driving factor at the back of your head that there’s a risk that you get left behind, but I’m determined that that won’t happen.”

Sexton didn’t make his Irish debut until he was 24, against Fiji at the RDS in November 2009, and had only assumed the role of first-choice Leinster outhalf earlier that year.

“You’ve got to maybe remember for me that I didn’t have that many games under my belt when I was 23/24, so whether it’s not the number of years but the number of games, maybe, that is the deciding factor, I don’t know.

“I’ve always invested in myself, in that I’ve always done stuff outside of the Leinster set-up or the Irish set-up at home, or meeting new people and investing in that, researching things. There’s lots of good people in the environment who help guys be professional and if you buy into it, obviously you can have a long career.”

A replacement for the 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat by Wales and injured for the quarter-final against Argentina in 2015, one ventured that the dust had barely settled on the chastening quarter-final against New Zealand in Tokyo when Sexton resolved that he would have one more shot at redemption.

“It’s a huge factor,” he admitted on Tuesday. “I’d like to think that even if we were successful at previous ones I’d still have the drive but it makes it that bit easier to want to go again. Because I’m very grateful for the career I’ve had but you do look back and go ‘we gave up some chances at World Cups and we didn’t perform at other World Cups’. But we want to put that right.”

“It’s just an opportunity at the moment. You’re not guaranteed anything as in you’re not guaranteed anything with selection. You have to continue to stay fit and keep your form and warrant a place in the team of course. To have that opportunity to try and do that is great now.”

Of course Ireland have the toughest draw imaginable at France 2023, but that’s for another day. So too Sexton’s choices in his post-career life, which is not something he can place on the long finger either.

“No, you have to prepare, don’t you? For me anyway, I’d be all over the shop if I had an uncertain period ahead. It’s even strange talking about the next 18 months on the week of an England game.

“I’m starting to think that we shouldn’t have announced it until a couple of weeks time but my focus for the moment is on finishing the Six Nations on a high, finish the season and then I think the after-rugby stuff. I’ve started preparing for it and that will look after itself.”

Indeed, this was four days out from a make-or-break Six Nations meeting with England at Twickenham on Saturday (kick-off 4.45pm) and Sexton has seen glimpses of ‘New’ England mixed in with traditional strengths, especially given Marcus Smith’s “vision” and “array of skills”.

Smith was 10-years-old when Sexton made his Test debut, and will be the fifth English outhalf he has opposed in 13 starts against them (six wins, seven defeats), after Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood and, on the last 11 occasions, either Owen Farrell or George Ford.

“Yeah, a slightly different challenge. George and Owen have done a pretty good job over the years. They’ve won a lot of trophies for England and given some big performances.

“I think Marcus has come in and has had a big impact on international rugby already, hasn’t he? Especially at such a young age, to win a Premiership, to going on a Lions tour so young. He’s ticking a lot of boxes already.

“He’s got the world at his feet, if he can keep those feet on the ground, keep working hard. He’s been very impressive so far, he’s shown all the tricks. His short-kicking game, good passing game, a good running game; he’s got it all. He’ll be a big player over the next 10-15 years for England.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times