Johnny Sexton has been crowned World Rugby Player of the Year on a night of sweeping success for Ireland.
Joe Schmidt scooped the coach of the year award, with Ireland named team of the year in a triple win for the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam winners at the World Rugby Awards.
Schmidt has guided Ireland from eighth to second in the world rankings in five years at the Test helm. He has proved as measured as it has rapid, and has earned the taskmaster boss the coach of the year prize. The Kiwi native will release a statement on Monday, revealing whether or not he intends to extend his tenure beyond next year’s World Cup.
British and Irish Lions outhalf Sexton has become the first northern hemisphere winner of World Rugby’s top accolade since France’s Thierry Dusautoir in 2011.
The 33-year-old is just the second Irishman to land the gong, following in the footsteps of former Ireland hooker Keith Wood, in 2001.
“It’s been an incredible year for Irish rugby, to win everything we could, really,” Sexton said at the ceremony in Monte-Carlo.
“It’s been very special, and a few of us have ended up here tonight. There are areas we’ve definitely highlighted to improve, which will be important in World Cup year.
“Teams try to peak for World Cup years. People ask have we peaked too soon? Well we haven’t peaked, so we’re just getting better and hopefully we can continue to do that.
“You have to improve ahead of the general curve. We know everyone else is going to get better.
“We’ll be going into a lot of games now as favourites after what’s happened this year, so that will be a challenge for us.
“We’ve got to deal with being favourites and I’m sure we can do that.”
Sexton’s stunning drop-goal on the 41st phase of the final play secured Ireland a 15-13 win over France in Paris, as Schmidt’s men set the ball rolling on just their third-ever Grand Slam.
The linchpin playmaker also guided Leinster to the Pro14-Champions Cup double, before starring when Ireland toppled back-to-back world champions New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin earlier this month. However, despite losing only once in 20 starts for his province this year, the award is based solely on achievements in international rugby in the calendar year.
Sexton has won 12 and drawn one of his last 13 tests for Ireland and the Lions. His only defeat in an Ireland jersey in 2018 came when he was named on the bench for the first test against Australia in Brisbane. In all he started nine of Ireland’s 10 wins this year, scoring 96 points.
The shortlist of five players (Sexton, the All Blacks pair of Barrett and Reiko Ioane, and the Springboks duo of Faf de Klerk and Malcolm Marx), was drawn up after members of the International Rugby Players submitted their nominations for their Player of the Year, which numbered several hundred, on foot of which supporters were asked to vote on social media.
A panel of eight - Maggie Alphonsi (ENG), Fabien Galthié (FRA) George Gregan (AUS), Richie McCaw (NZL), Brian O'Driscoll (IRE) Agustín Pichot (ARG), John Smit (RSA) and Clive Woodward (ENG) - then took all this into consideration before conducting a conference call this week to agree upon their choice.
Having landed 39 out of 50 kicks at goal for Ireland this year - for a ratio of 78 per cent - Sexton is only the sixth European winner of the award. Fellow nominee Beauden Barrett - who landed 34 out of 48 of his kicks in 2018 (71 per cent) - was aiming to become the first man to win three in a row. An All Blacks player had won the award in each of the previous six years.
South Africa’s Aphiwe Dyantyi pipped Ireland’s Jordan Larmour to the Breakthrough Player of the Year award.
France’s Jessy Tremouliere is World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year, with New Zealand’s Michaela Blyde claiming the Women’s Sevens award.
Australia’s Angus Gardner picked up the Referee Award, with Doddie Weir scooping the Award for Character.
Jamie Armstrong of charity The Clan was handed the Spirit of Rugby Award, while Stephen Moore and DJ Forbes both picked up the IRP Special Merit Award.