Sexton’s captaincy style at Thomond Park raises concerns

Cullen and Kearney defend Sexton after he admits being ‘too revved up’ against Munster

Leinster’s Johnny Sexton clashes with Munster’s Joey Carbery as referee Frank Murphy looks on. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Leinster’s Johnny Sexton clashes with Munster’s Joey Carbery as referee Frank Murphy looks on. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Imagine the glorious ending on a balmy Yokohama night next November. Historians would forever label Ireland’s captaincy as the 60/20 method. Rory Best or Peter O’Mahony – whichever man remains stuck together – leads with diplomacy for an hour before Sexton Law rams victory home. 

Leadership comes in many forms.

At the height of their vicious Bledisloe rivalry the usually unflappable John Eales cast a deeply frustrated shadow over Sean Fitzpatrick and many a giggling referee.

Eales, protesting the genocide of Wallaby ball by Josh Kronfeld and Michael Jones, tended to be waved away so the official could regain his composure after the All Black captain delivered one of the rib ticklers that preceded his illustrious and ongoing existence as an after-dinner speaker.

Wallaby rugby built a statue and named a prestigious medal after Eales but on the field, in the heat of battle, when the delivery of messages is everything, Fitzpatrick was the master of quick-witted chatter. 

“I know you hate me but you have to talk to me now,” Johnny Sexton commanded of Pascal Gauzere as O’Mahony was carted away and Ireland needed the World Player of the Year’s steely resolve to capture a Test series in Sydney last summer.

“I am the captain,” Sexton informed the stunned French man. Gauzere, as touch judge the previous week in Melbourne, had instructed Paul Williams, the referee, to ignore the running commentary offered by Ireland’s outhalf.

Nothing personal

“It was nothing personal, it never is,” Sexton later stated. His being a sporting life on razor’s edge, sometimes he falls off.

Sexton repeated the mantra to Nigel Owens  – “I am the captain” – in Paris the previous February when, with Best gone and O’Mahony temporarily horizontal, France hood-winked the officials by turning their scrumhalf’s knee injury into a HIA, thereby avoiding numerical disadvantage. 

Sexton copped it before anyone else. Frank Murphy’s admirable attempt to keep a lid on the Leinster captain’s perhaps overly blunt yet wonderfully entertaining means of communication was effective for 16 minutes in Thomond Park last week. Sexton felt wronged by the Cork whistler – captained by Leo Cullen during their Leicester Tiger days – after Cian Healy’s sin-binning led to a breakdown in “constructive” interaction.

Referee Pascal Gauzere talks to Australia’s David Pocock and Ireland’s Johnny Sexton during the third Test match between the sides at Allianz Stadium in June 2018 in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Referee Pascal Gauzere talks to Australia’s David Pocock and Ireland’s Johnny Sexton during the third Test match between the sides at Allianz Stadium in June 2018 in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Besides the common trait of winning, Sexton hardly captains in the stately manner of Eales but, if he so wishes, he could be like Fitzpatrick. At present the obvious comparison is Martin Johnson, the bludgeoning English man who grabbed the William Webb Ellis trophy in 2003.

He’s certainly not like Cullen, the most successful provincial leader ever, nor does he convey messages in the polite manner of former national captains Brian O’Driscoll and Keith Wood. This week both men took to the media merry-go-round to administer mild rebukes of Sexton’s captaincy. As did former team-mates Luke Fitzgerald and Andy Dunne.

The fear is a pattern has developed, a perception that could spread negative preconceptions among officials. The 33-year-old conceded after defeat to Munster that he was probably “too revved up” for his first sortie south in six seasons.

It may prove a valuable lesson for a man fuelled by the aggression that blooms the moment he gets hit late (Fineen Wycherley caught Sexton a beauty in the initial exchanges which led to the first of many mini-rumbles). 

“Johnny was okay, I thought his relationship with Frank [Murphy] was good,” Cullen said with a straight face when asked an indirect question about the looks-could-kill interactions between the Leinster captain and referee in Limerick.

When the cameras were switched off yesterday a longer discussion began between print reporters, Cullen and occasional captain, but undoubted leader, Rob Kearney.

“We need to understand why we got ourselves down to 13 players, lost three players [two yellow cards and James Lowe’s red], and we’re behind on the scoreboard,” said Cullen. “It’s not just one incident, it’s a lot of different things if we don’t manage the pressure of the game and the pressure Munster put on us.

Skirmishes

“They’ve been involved in lots of these skirmishes in their recent games; Castres, Glasgow, even Ulster the week before where there are these fracas breaking out in the games whereas it’s something that we haven’t encountered a huge amount. We don’t manage it particularly well where they do, they keep their players on the field where we lose three and we’ve got a suspension [Lowe] as well. The penalty count evens itself out over the game but in the first half, we were behind and we were suddenly chasing the game and then we give an intercept. So there are a series of events that we don’t manage.

“It’s the start of the game that we didn’t manage,” he added.

There is something to be said about a player avoiding sanction after ripping a scrum cap off a young flanker and slapping him clean across the face. That’s rare presence and perhaps why Cullen felt the most gifted in his squad should also be his formal on-field commander. 

Or there is a more central theory. Ireland work off three primary leaders. O’Mahony captains Munster while Best recently returned as Ulster captain so it makes sense in this season of seasons to have Sexton running the blue province.

Clearly, Ireland’s primary decision maker and under the most strenuous pressure – see Paris, see Sydney – he delivers but Thomond Park raises the concern that this relatively inexperienced captain needs to learn how to communicate with officials from the beginning of emotionally charged games.

Sexton leaves the pitch after being shown a yellow card by referee Pascal Gauzere Six Nations game against Scotland in 2016. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Sexton leaves the pitch after being shown a yellow card by referee Pascal Gauzere Six Nations game against Scotland in 2016. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

“Definitely, you can evolve all the time,” Cullen agreed. “The main thing is we’re always trying to understand how we get better in games. That’s the mindset we’ll always have.”

Cullen uncovers the nub of this debate when asked to name Sexton’s strongest trait as a captain. “It’s his drive for the team to be successful and to maximise their potential. He is someone who is literally maximising his potential, that’s why he was [named] World Player of the Year. He had an incredible year last year, the drive, the hunger he has to be successful; that’s what sets him apart from everybody else.

“At times, when you’re right to the edge sometimes you might tip over the edge. That’s the fine line he operates on. That’s what makes him the player that he is, and lots of the great players have been like that.

“I haven’t heard all the commentary over the week but there have been captains over the course of time in various different sports who have been on that edge.”

Abrasive characters

Like Cullen’s former club mate Martin Johnson? “Exactly, yeah, someone like that.” Johnson brought his extremely confrontational form of captaincy to the most successful English club side ever (Leicester Tigers won four Premierships and two European Cups between 1998 and 2002) and there was the small matter of ‘03.

In 2005 Leicester recruited Cullen to fill that void. Cullen choose Sexton to replace Isa Nacewa.

“They are abrasive characters because they want their team to do well. They want to impose themselves on the game because they feel the weight. They want to bring everyone with them. That can be a tough space to operate in with all the scrutiny that you guys put on them.”

Kearney also offers salvation to his friend. “The other players around him have to take responsibility,” said this evening’s captain against Ulster. “If our discipline is really good and we don’t get caught in some of those positions Johnny doesn’t have to talk to the ref. He was probably a little frustrated with the team’s discipline and that came out. There is an onus on everyone to make sure the team’s discipline is as good as possible and then the referee becomes a little irrelevant.”

Rugby officials have not been irrelevant for some time now, but the point holds.

Leadership comes in many forms. Irish rugby have struck gold in this regard. Best brings composure to the role but he carries no weight when invariably sitting in the stand for the last 20 minutes of most Test matches. Same, more often than not, goes for the highly combative O’Mahony.

Those razor-thin victories tend to need Sexton to remain on the field.

“There are other people in the team that share the load,” Cullen concludes. “It is something we are conscious of, always. We are all in this together.”

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