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Wednesday 17 January 2018

Hunter is now the hunted one

Aer Lingus ambassador Johnny Sexton surprised Castleknock College and Mount Sackville students with a ‘Rugby Coaching Masterclass’ to mark the fact that Aer Lingus is offering 30pc off fares to many popular European destinations
Aer Lingus ambassador Johnny Sexton surprised Castleknock College and Mount Sackville students with a ‘Rugby Coaching Masterclass’ to mark the fact that Aer Lingus is offering 30pc off fares to many popular European destinations

Jonathan Sexton should have the wisdom of Solomon by now.

The journey from door-banging, impatient upstart to master controller has not been a smooth decade.

Close to the beginning, Sexton had been bending former Leinster coach Michael Cheika's ear about why he should be trusted with the number ten shirt over Argentina's Felipe Contepomi, who could move to twelve to compete with Ireland's Gordon D'Arcy or simply move out of his way.

These must have been seen as the mutterings of a madman.

But, genius never finds good company with common sense.

You have to see things differently. You have to believe.

Irrational

No matter how irrational it may seem to outsiders.

Then, Contepomi went down injured in the European Cup semi-final at Croke Park, Sexton immediately struck a penalty, outplayed Ronan O'Gara and showed everyone there was method to his madness.

It was May 2 2009. Sexton was 23-going-on-33. Older than Joey Carbery, 22 next week. Older than Ross Byrne, 22.

"Look, you definitely have to target who is ahead of you," said Sexton.

Now, the hunter has become the hunted.

The man once motivated by his adversary O'Gara is the target at which all others aim.

"There is lots of young guys coming through that will want to be playing number 10 for Leinster and Ireland.

"When you are in that position you have to have a different mentality about it.

"For me, I feel I can get better and that is how I have always been.

"I'd like to think I've got better as years have gone on. It is what I will try to continue to do.

"If I don't, that is the time I will step away. That's my motivation, to find my best.

"If someone comes along that is better and takes the jersey away then fair play to them."

It is difficult to imagine the humble Carbery leaving the imprint of his knuckles on Leo Cullen's office door about why it should have been Carbery-versus-Finn Russell at Scotstoun.

It is not such a stretch to envisage Byrne flash a smile that screams, "I'm your man".

There have been the knocks, physical and emotional, that have tested the infamous temper and temperament of a man who does not suffer fools easily.

Take The Lions. The Ireland out-half had to sit and suffer as Warren Gatland lauded Ben Te'o as a ram-rod centre, who knew how to break the line, but not how to make the line.

It took the All Blacks hammering home the message of 'brain over brawn' to force Gatland into changing his principles on the game.

Sexton was paired with Owen Farrell and the pair drove The Lions to a win and a draw in the second and third tests respectively to square the series.

Back in the arms of his club, Sexton was handed the captaincy of Leinster in Europe.

This is the ultimate test of patience for a man not exactly seen as a friend of the man in the middle.

"Yeah, look, it is something that I am working on," he acknowledged.

"I am trying to work on it, like you work on your leadership, how you can deal with people better, it is definitely something that you need to do.

"The older you get the more you need to be making sure you can be that kind of player who can drive things.

"You have to do it slightly differently when you are older.

"But, yeah there is definitely something in me that I have to calm down a bit.

"I rather be that than be a person that needs a kick up the ass every morning.

"It is about finding the balance really."

The testy exchanges with referees mirror those with many of the players around him.

There is a sense that the perfectionist within can be Sexton's best friend and worst enemy, depending on what was the result swings.

"I try and prepare as best I can for all the games that I play," he said.

"Sometimes it goes well and other times it doesn't go so well, despite doing the same preparation every time.

"Playing out-half, you can prepare as well as you can, but because you rely on so much, the guys in front of you, the guy giving you information outside you, the guy passing you the ball, everything counts.

Hard

"That is why you have to be hard on guys because you know that, at the end of the day, they help you play well.

"They are a large part of the reason why you do play well," he admitted.

"That's why you try and drive things. But, then you've got to find a balance in how you do that and how you can do it better.

"You try to get better all the time in every area of the game," he stressed.

The two-tour test Lion is a hard man to aim at because his standards are constantly evolving.

Sexton won't slow down any time soon. It is up to those chasing his shadow to emerge from it.

He won't make it easy because he never had it easy.

Even a genius has to earn his shirt before he can wear it.

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