ON TENTERHOOKS

Ire­land out-half Sex­ton ad­mitts com­pe­ti­tion for his shirt has put him on edge

Daily Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - SPORT - BY MICHAEL SCULLY

JOHNNY SEX­TON is rel­ish­ing the com­pe­ti­tion for his No10 shirt that he knows is bub­bling up be­hind him.

Per­haps it was be­cause he was look­ing over his shoul­der at the chas­ing pack that Sex­ton – as he puts it – “stupidly” played in Le­in­ster’s Cham­pi­ons Cup clash with Cas­tres on Jan­uary 20.

In do­ing so he fur­ther in­jured his bruised calf, the lat­est in a line of prob­lems that left him frus­trated as he watched Paddy Jackson grow more into the jersey he had made his own over the past five years. “My body felt as good as it had done in years,” he said. “I felt un­der pres­sure to get back for that game be­cause I wanted a run of games com­ing into the Six Na­tions. It was a tough de­ci­sion but one I learnt from.” Sex­ton let all of his frus­tra­tion out with the shake of his fist in the 50th minute of Ire­land’s win over France on Satur­day, the 31-year-old rub­ber-stamp­ing a tour de force come­back with a 35-yard drop goal to push his side into a com­mand­ing lead. “There’s no one more frus­trated and up­set when I’m in­jured,” he said. “Some­times you cel­e­brate things but re­gret do­ing it, you’re pumped up and want to show peo­ple how much it means to you to play for Ire­land.

“I’d missed it. It was great to be back in. It was a frus­trat­ing few weeks, to do so much hard work be­fore Christ­mas and then to sort of undo it by be­ing a bit silly and play­ing with a knock in the calf.

“It was re­ally dif­fi­cult but you get stronger with th­ese things. You find out about a lot of peo­ple around you and about your­self.

“It’s im­por­tant to bounce back. I’m sure I’ll have more in­juries in my ca­reer, it’s just the na­ture of the game. But I’ll do ev­ery­thing I can now to re­main as fit as pos­si­ble.”

Twice in the past three years Sex­ton has been forced to sit out for pro­longed pe­ri­ods – in 2014 af­ter a se­ries of con­cus­sions and then last Novem­ber when he in­jured both ham­strings in quick suc­ces­sion.

That fol­lowed shoul­der surgery in the sum­mer but he points out that he has never been out with a long-term in­jury. “I spent a lot of time in Santry - six weeks to try and

make sure I found out the rea­son why I was pick­ing those in­juries up and I felt I did,” he told TV3. “I just played on a bad haematoma in my calf against Cas­tres and paid the price. You live and learn.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate in many ways that if I get in­jured it’s in the pa­pers. There are guys at Le­in­ster who are in­jured and haven’t played for two years. That puts me in per­spec­tive.

“It’s not as bad as it’s made out to be and I feel very for­tu­nate. I’m sur­rounded by guys who have had their ca­reer cut short by in­jury, they’ve had nine months, a year out or have re­tired at 24 or 25. I look at it a dif­fer­ent way.”

In fact, Sex­ton be­lieves his best could be yet to come. “I hope it will make me stronger, I can get a string of games now and I’ll hit my best form,” he said. “I feel I’m on the verge of hit­ting good form but I’ve been stopped by a cou­ple of nig­gles. Hope­fully I’m over that now.”

Time, he knows, waits for no man. The Lions No10 jersey looks to be his again if he stays fit but be­hind him there is a cadre of hun­gry young Ir­ish out-halves. “I’ve al­ways had great re­spect for Paddy Jackson (in­set), al­ways seen how good he was and I knew what he could do,” said Sex­ton. “It was no sur­prise to me. He’s had a run of games, he played the South Africa tour and then he played the Aus­tralian game and the lat­ter half of the New Zealand game. You’re see­ing what he can do.

“We’ve got a great re­la­tion­ship and it’s go­ing to be a great bat­tle over the years. Then you throw in guys like Ross Byrne, Joey Car­bery and Tyler Bleyen­daal will qual­ify as well. The com­pe­ti­tion is only go­ing to get stronger and it’ll bring the best out of all of us.”

Of the Six Na­tions ti­tle chase, Sex­ton is ex­cited to be in­volved at the busi­ness end and can­not wait for the Wales game in Cardiff. He said: “We’re se­cond and it’s very much in our own hands. We’ve to go to Cardiff and we re­alise how dif­fi­cult it’s go­ing to be.

“We know how small the mar­gins are, Wales could eas­ily have three wins and be go­ing for a Grand Slam them­selves.”

MISSED YOU Kicks, runs, cel­e­bra­tions and knocks – Sex­ton show on Satur­day had it all WE’RE ALL BE­HIND YOU Johnny Sex­ton at­tracts a crowd at the Aviva Sta­dium train­ing ses­sion yes­ter­day

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