Sexton still musing on Lions’ Test series win that got away
Experienced outhalf looking forward to getting back into action with Leinster
Lions Jack McGrath, Jonathan Sexton and Tadhg Furlong in their new Leinster kit. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The splint on Jonathan Sexton’s wrist represents a physical legacy from the Lions’ tour to New Zealand, a rolled ankle in the third Test compounded by the bodyweight of another player landing on the joint, no longer an issue.
The disappointment of a drawn Test series against the All Blacks is beginning to recede, less acute, more wistful as the distance of time provides a salve.
“When you draw, it is an anti-climax. You’re not too happy, not too sad. The fact we had such a good group of players – off the pitch we got on so well – meant we were able to enjoy the few days. It is only after your holiday you look back on it. I thought we should have won it if we had played at our best in that third Test.
“It is disappointing. At the same time, a lot of people are proud of what we did down there. We can take satisfaction from that. We can say we were unbeaten in [in the Test series] in New Zealand. You can twist it any way you want. We all went down there to try and win a series.
“We will look back on it with fond memories because of the bond we had among the group and the great friends that we made. From a rugby point of view, it was one that got away. The second Test, beating New Zealand was definitely the highlight, getting us back into it, making for a big third Test.”
Sexton’s maturity and mental strength allowed him to deal with the occasional speed bump of selection and performance. He recalled a conversation amongst the players post the opening match of the tour against the New Zealand Barbarians, two days after arriving. “I don’t think we have ever played a match feeling worse, mentally and physically.
“I didn’t get too hung-up on that game to be honest. I prepared for that game as best I could and tried my best – the same as all the rest. Sometimes it comes off for you and sometimes it doesn’t.
“They decided to go one way for the first Test. I just had to keep training as hard as I could, keep doing my bit, not get too down and realise there were two more Tests to come. Thankfully, I got the nod for the last two.
“Obviously I would have liked to have played the first one. I started three in the last tour so to have started three on this tour would have been a special thing in itself,” before adding with a smile “there’s always another one! My wife would kill me. I was joking.”
He agreed with the assessment that players touring with the Lions for the first time will have learnt so much playing with and against some of the best players in the world, pointing to his own experiences four years previously in Australia that improved him more than any other tour or World Cup.
Two days into his pre-season with Leinster, the 32-year-old outhalf knows that he won’t play a match until roughly round five or six of the Guinness Pro14 but the appetite has returned and he understands the value in preparing the body, something he missed out on last year after shoulder surgery.
He explained: “Obviously I would like to be back playing a good bit before Europe, get match fit and have some form going into those big games. And there is Munster before Europe as well.”
By his own admission he didn’t play as often as he would have wanted for Leinster last season because of injury and that, coupled with the disappointment of losing Champions Cup (Clermont Auvergne) and Pro12 (Scarlets) semi-finals has forged a renewed determination.
“We put ourselves in a position to do it last year obviously and to lose two semi-finals was gutting. For everyone involved it was a lesson in how we prepare and how we have to realise that’s when the business really starts, as opposed to everything is going great, scoring tries for fun and then we come unstuck in those two games.”
Sexton isn’t unduly concerned by ‘second season syndrome’ that can afflict young players who enjoy a stellar breakthrough year in the senior ranks. Leinster had several.
He said: “Maybe they might not stand out as much because they might be scouted that bit better, but I think some of these young guys coming through are going to be really top class and I think they can still shine with teams putting pressure on them.”
On a personal level his desire remains as sharp as ever.
“You’ve got people coming in keeping you fresh and hungry; Stuart [Lancaster] at Leinster, guys coming in with Ireland and Joe [Schmidt] still being there. Faz [Andy Farrell] came in last year really bringing more to the party.”