Johnny Sexton fighting fit and eager to lead Leinster challenge

New captain accepts it will be a tough task emulating last season’s double success

Johnny Sexton at the Pro14 season launch at  Celtic Park, Glasgow. 'We’ve lost players and haven’t replaced them and it’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but I can’t wait.' Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Johnny Sexton at the Pro14 season launch at Celtic Park, Glasgow. 'We’ve lost players and haven’t replaced them and it’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but I can’t wait.' Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Growing up as a rugby-mad Leinster fan in Dublin, Johnny Sexton surely couldn’t have dreamt of the career he has gone on to have with both his childhood team and Ireland.

Grand Slams, Six Nations titles and domestic and European glory at club level are all on the 33-year-old’s CV, but now Sexton has fulfilled a lifelong wish by being named Leinster captain.

The Lions star has taken over the role as skipper of Leo Cullen’s men from Isa Nacewa and admits he has some serious work to do to emulate the legendary New Zealander.

Leinster face a tough task to emulate their double success of last season, but in Sexton they have a new leader who is embracing the latest challenge to come his way.

“I don’t know why, but as a child I grew up always wanting to captain the side I supported,” Sexton said. “I’m proud and delighted to take on the responsibility and I hope I’m ready.

“I’ve had a couple of conversations around how it will work and I have big boots to fill considering the people who have gone before me, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Sexton’s rugby pedigree is without question, but on the face of it his appointment as skipper is a strange one by Cullen given his presence as one of Ireland’s leading lights.

With his game time managed by Ireland boss Joe Schmidt, Sexton has started just nine Guinness PRO14 matches in the last two seasons. He is far from a Leinster regular when it comes to club duty in the PRO14.

Sexton is also set to sit out his team’s league opener at Cardiff Blues a week on Friday, but insists his scheduled absentees during international periods won’t harm his team’s chances of success.

“Missing some games was part of the conversation we had,” the outhalf said. “When Isa was captain he was obviously there all year round and he could get the feel of the group.

Leadership group

“In periods like the Six Nations I won’t be there, but I’ll be supporting the boys and helping out as much as I can and I don’t see it being too much of a problem.

“We’ve always had a good leadership group at Leinster and we pride ourselves on that. I will have to lean heavily on guys like Rhys Ruddock. There’s Scott Fardy too and a lot of the young guys coming through also have the potential to be great leaders.

“We’ve got a good mix of young players and more experienced guys who want to make the most of their last few years. Our blend is pretty good.”

The 2017-18 campaign must go down as one of Sexton’s best. Fresh from starring for the Lions in their drawn series with New Zealand, he guided Leinster to the double, Ireland to a Six Nations Grand Slam, and ended the season with international series success in Australia.

You could forgive him for being tired with the start of the competitive action on the horizon once again. Not a bit of it. Sexton is fighting fit and raring to go.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a good few years. I didn’t end last season with an injury which required an operation which was new for me,” he added.

“I finished up in Australia fully fit and I was able to look after myself better on holiday as a result. At Leinster we don’t want to look too far ahead because if we do that we’re going to be in trouble.

“There are areas we can definitely get better at and we need to do that because if you look at all the other teams, they’ve improved through signing players or hiring new coaches.

“We haven’t changed a lot. We’ve lost players and haven’t replaced them and it’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but I can’t wait.”

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