Sexton ignores increasing levels of scrutiny as he returns to lead Leinster into battle
Sexton ignores increasing levels of scrutiny as he returns to lead Leinster into battle

Sexton ignores increasing levels of scrutiny as he returns to lead Leinster into battle

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

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IT MUST HAVE been a long five weeks for Johnny Sexton, as further injury frustrations granted him unwanted time to deliberate a forgettable Six Nations campaign, while his lay-off only added to the conversations about the out-half’s form and fitness. 

But, back to full fitness and ready to lead Leinster into European battle again, it came as no surprise to see Sexton arrive ahead of his team-mates for this afternoon’s captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium. He is straining at the leash to get out there again.    

Sexton during Saturday’s captain’s run. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Incredibly, Sexton has not played for his province in 2019, with his last appearance in blue coming at Thomond Park over Christmas, and while he is pitched straight back in for a Heineken Champions Cup semi-final, the 33-year-old has shown in the past his ability to hit the ground running.

Sexton’s return to fitness is a timely boost for Leo Cullen’s side as they put their European crown on the line against fellow four-time winners Toulouse tomorrow afternoon, but after missing the quarter-final win over Ulster, all eyes will be on the World Player of the Year.

The intense level of scrutiny is something Sexton has become used to, and with age has come a greater appreciation that criticism is par for the course when you’re a player of his world-class quality and of such importance for both club and country.

But as much as he tries to ignore the outside noise and focus on the advice given to him by those in the know, it’s difficult to completely shut out the constant chatter about his performances.

“It has probably gone to a new level maybe,” he says of the criticism. “But it is something that I have gotten used to. I have been used to it since I have been in school.

“It’s not something I pay too much attention to. I know the facts. I know what actually happened. I am lucky that I am surrounded by coaches that know the game really, really well. I listen to their advice and I try to ignore as much of the noise as I can.

“It is hard to because people want to come up to you in the street and ask you if you are okay. You know it’s bad when that’s happening.

“It’s something that you get used to with experience. I’m looking forward to getting out there tomorrow.”

Sexton, speaking at this afternoon’s pre-match press conference, was quick to dismiss the notion that the added pressure of being named World Player of the Year for his outstanding performances in 2018 has weighed heavy.

Sexton during today’s press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“No, not at all,” he said. “I said it at the time, that is people’s opinion in that moment in time. Obviously 2018 was a special year but I remember sitting at the table before the awards. My wife told me I was very relaxed about it and I said ‘If I win it, it’s a stick to beat me with, if I don’t win it, I don’t mind.’

“It’s people’s opinion. I would much rather win a trophy because you guys can’t sit there and say ‘Leinster haven’t won four stars, four European Cups.’

“But we have and you can’t take that away. But you can argue about whether someone is playing well or someone is not playing well.

“You can all have your opinions about that but you can’t take away trophies and that is why I love being here and trying to win competitions because that doesn’t get taken away from you.”

After shaking off that quad issue and been carefully managed by Leinster over the last three weeks, Sexton is fit and firing for the business end of the season and this week spent time working with kicking coach Dave Alfred in anticipation of his return.

“I’ve worked with him since I was 22,” Sexton added. “He always comes over and when he is available I always take him, because he is brilliant. He tries to make himself available for these type of games. Hopefully, I get to keep working with him for the foreseeable future.

“I am happy to have got the issues sorted out with my leg.”

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to preview the Champions Cup semi-finals and all the week’s news on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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