Johnny Sexton: ‘The attitude was different and that was my first real taste of Test rugby I think’

Set to win his 100th cap on Saturday, the Ireland outhalf looks back on his first few

Johnny Sexton’s debut was memorable, but not necessarily one of the most auspicious of his previous 99 Tests for his country. During the November window of 2009 when Ireland hosted their other games at Croke Park, Sexton’s first cap was at a windy, rainswept RDS against Fiji.

No wonder therefore that his memories are more immediately drawn to the games before and after.

"The week before I was on the bench for the Australia game and I remember Paddy Wallace went down with a blood injury and I had the kit off as quickly as I could to try and get on the pitch. I was on the pitch in Croke Park but then Paddy jumped backed up, got strapped and played on, and I was gutted.

“For the early part of that week I was devastated that I didn’t get on, but I suppose the abiding memory of the Fiji game was how bad the weather was.

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“I’ll never forget lining up for the anthem and obviously it’s strange getting your first cap in the RDS but I remember going: ‘What did I do to deserve getting my first cap in this weather?’ But thankfully we put in a good performance and a good win.

“Then my first big game was the following week against South Africa which was a huge game and you could feel the difference in a Test week like that compared to the week previously.”

Ireland won 15-10 against the then World and Tri Nations champions who had beaten the Lions the preceding summer. Sexton scored all of Ireland’s points.

“You looked around the room and people were just different. The attitude was different and that was my first real taste of Test rugby I think.”

Sexton's route into the Irish team sharpened earlier in 2009 when he was the outhalf in Leinster's Heineken Cup final win over Leicester at the end of the 2008-09 season. But Michael Cheika had substituted him at half-time in the round four pool defeat in Castres, and Sexton was left out of the matchday squad for the final group games and the quarter-final win away to Harlequins as the coach rotated between Isa Nacewa and Felipe Contepomi at '10'.

Sexton's senior career had started with St Mary's four seasons previously under Peter Smyth and Steve Hennessy – "both brilliant people for me" – in a promotion-winning campaign. "I had one of my most enjoyable years ever playing straight out of school playing in the AIL with that team."

So back he went to rebuild his game with St Mary’s.

“They were always brilliant for me, always made room to accommodate me and always provided a great set-up to go back into and allow me to put my best foot forward to try and get back into Leinster. So yeah, huge role they played.”

Sexton didn’t start a Leinster game for five months, although they had a higher try-scoring ratio during his appearances off the bench, until a strong outing in a win over the Scarlets led to him being restored to the bench for the semi-final against Munster at Croke Park, whereupon Contepomi’s knee injury opened the door for first Leinster, and not long after Ireland.

It comes as a surprise to Sexton that of his 99 previous Irish Tests, he was only a replacement in nine of them. Of those he missed altogether, two stand out as big regrets.

“Probably the quarter-final of 2015 against Argentina and the Japanese group game in 2019. Those two games when you’re sitting in the stand going, “why am I not there?” But that’s just looking back.

“Obviously any game you’re injured, you’re gutted because your job is a rugby player and if you’re not doing your job, you’re not happy. But I think those two games stand out more.”

The silver lining in not reaching the milestone during the Six Nations or July is that at least there will be a substantial crowd to mark Sexton's 100th cap for Ireland against Japan on Saturday, although ticket sales have been sluggish – not much over 30,000 so far.

In a bid to help fill out the ground, one adult can now buy a €60 ticket as well as five children’s tickets for €10 each. But otherwise overpriced tickets haven’t helped. Nor has a TV-dictated 1pm kick-off. For starters it effectively clashes with a full programme of AIL matches at 2.30 when, as an example, his old club are away to Shannon.