Johnny Sexton set for Ireland century after a summer of graft in the shadows

It would have irked Johnny Sexton no end. Not only did he miss out on a third Lions tour to complete the southern hemisphere set but he was involuntarily rested for Ireland’s two summer Tests as well. Stuck on 99 caps for Ireland and with barely half an hour’s rugby in six months.

But maybe it has worked out for the best. Had he reached his century for Ireland against Japan in July, there’d only have been 3,000 inside the Aviva. Sexton is training fully again after overcoming the hip injury he sustained against the Scarlets last Saturday week, and presuming he becomes just the seventh Irish player to reach the landmark next Saturday week against the Brave Blossoms, there’ll be a full house to mark the occasion. Far more appropriate.

The century seems all the more remarkable, as he says himself, bearing in mind he was 24 when he made his debut against Fiji at the RDS in November 2009, landing seven from seven for a 16-point haul in a 41-6 win also featuring two tries by Keith Earls.

“I hope I’d have improved, as a player,” he responds when asked how he has changed since then. “I’ve built up experience over the years; obviously lots of ups and downs through the last whatever it has been 10, 11, 12 years. Lots of ups and downs.

“But one thing as a 10 that you need to have is the ability to bounce back because you are going to have days that don’t always go to plan, some when you least expect it, and I’d like to think I’ve always done that well.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d get to 100, because when you get your first cap you go ‘if I get six or seven or eight years at the top I’ll be happy’. Suddenly it rolls into this and you get to a milestone, or a potential milestone – touch wood – that you didn’t dream of.

“It’s something to look forward to if it happens but at the moment I’ve just got to get out on the pitch and train well and make sure that I get read out in the team for those games.”

Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty on his Ireland debut against Fiji in 2009. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty on his Ireland debut against Fiji in 2009. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The extended break has had its benefits too. On his return against the Bulls, starting Leinster’s first competitive game of the season for the first time since 2009, Sexton looked as physically strong as ever, if not stronger.

“I did work hard. I went out to Santry for a few weeks. I worked with the guy out there, Enda King, who I’ve worked with previously, during that Lions block. I thought in my own head I could be on standby, so I wanted to try and keep fit.

He “loved” his first full pre-season with Leinster “for the first time in I don’t know how long. It’s a very different group at the time of the year because you have no internationals, no Lions players, and I had never had that really before, not since I was a young lad.”

Now it was his time to help the younger players.

“I suppose I had to try and set an example to show them what training looked like and not letting standards slip, even though it might have been the first session of the year, and try and drive things that way.”

Captain of both province and country, Sexton has also assumed a “new responsibility” in the Irish set-up.

“I try not to be overbearing going to young lads and pushing things on them but I am always there for them if they want to sit down and talk to me.

“That’s always the way I was. I learned more looking at people over the years. I had some great role models in Leinster and in Ireland and I was like a sponge but I never once tapped them on the shoulder. I used to watch them every day and listen to what they used to say so it is important that you lead by example and be the role model on the pitch and you’ll develop people that way.”

Role models have also been instrumental in Sexton keeping himself physically primed into his mid-30s.

“In Leinster we had Brad Thorn, who came to us at 37 and we won a European Cup together. He was one of the guys I looked at in awe at times. I used to watch him every day when he was there, for five or six months, and learnt a lot from him in terms of preparation.

“Paul O’Connell was another one with Ireland who played until the same age I am now. He was so professional. You need a little bit of luck as well. You are only one injury away from finishing and I’ve been blessed with as long a career as I had.”

But there are no guarantees, ever.

Johnny Sexton could earn his 100th Ireland cap against Japan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Johnny Sexton could earn his 100th Ireland cap against Japan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

“Someone I thought was one of the best professionals I ever played with was Jamie Heaslip and he had his career finished by tackling a tackle bag before a game and hurt his back. It’s crazy how it can finish.

“I am always trying to stay on top of things, doing those one percents that will hopefully make a difference. It’s been far from perfect. Every athlete, every rugby player, gets injured and I have over the years but it’s part of the game as well.”

Whatever about results this November, with the All Blacks and Argentina to follow Japan, Sexton wants to see a consistently high level of performance by Ireland.

“We’ve won our last five games but it is about the quality of performance. Will it be hard? Yeah, a lot of guys could be undercooked. A lot of guys have only just come back off the Lions and played a couple of games with their clubs.

“Normally we have interpros and big European games, a bloc of maybe six, seven or eight games, before November. We haven’t had that and we are playing against teams that are battle-hardened so it will be a challenge but we have to set out standards high and expect performances of ourselves.

“We have proved over the Six Nations that we have big performances in us but we need to make sure that they are across the three games.”

Johnny Sexton’s Ireland career by the numbers

Played: 99. Points: 925. (14 tries, 132 conversions, 193 penalties, 4 drop goals). Second behind Ronan O’Gara on 1,083, with David Humphreys third on 560.

Ireland’s centurions

133 – Brian O’Driscoll.

128 – Ronan O’Gara.

124 – Rory Best.

109 – Cian Healy.

108 – Paul O’Connell.

105 – John Hayes.

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