Sex­ton’s stel­lar year in green and blue

Sex­ton would be a wor­thy World Player of the Year – es­pe­cially in light of last Satur­day’s head-to-head with Beau­den Bar­rett

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley:

The clock has passed the 77 minute mark. Ire­land trail France by 13-12 and their goose looks cooked. An­thony Bel­leau is lin­ing up a kick­able penalty about 35 me­tres out and 15 in from the left touch­line. No­body is think­ing about a Grand Slam, but be­hind the Ir­ish posts Johnny Sex­ton is plot­ting a way out of this hole.

Ire­land have been the bet­ter team on a mis­er­ably wet, dark grey day in Paris and have led for over 70 min­utes. But they’ve also been hit by a sucker punch Teddy Thomas counter-at­tack­ing try just five min­utes ear­lier which Bel­leau con­verted to over­take Sex­ton’s four penal­ties.

In the Ir­ish in-goal area, Sex­ton’s com­pet­i­tive fire is still burn­ing. He tells Fer­gus McFad­den that if Bel­leau misses, he’ll be hang­ing his 22 me­tre restart to the left touch­line for the re­place­ment winger.

On 77 min­utes, 20 sec­onds Bel­leau’s kick drifts wide of the left up­right and Sex­ton catches the ball on the dead ball line be­fore rush­ing to the 22. Seven sec­onds later, he lofts his drop out to­ward the left touch­line and McFad­den, but where Iain Hen­der­son, un­scripted, bril­liantly catches the ball.

Four phases later, Sex­ton works his wrap­around, but is forced to check back in­side and carry hard into con­tact. It takes Ire­land 24 phases to al­most get to half-way and it’s hard yakka.

Now, with the clock in the red on 80 min­utes 30 sec­onds, Sex­ton gam­bles and cross-kicks to Keith Earls from the Ir­ish 10 me­tre line. Through­out the game, Earls had been telling Sex­ton that the cross kick was on, but this was Sex­ton’s first chance to try it.

Earls gath­ers five me­tres in­side the French half, rel­a­tively un­chal­lenged by Vir­imi Vakatawa, and also steps Henry Cha­vancy to buy a pre­cious three or four sec­onds for Rob­bie Hen­shaw and Rob Kear­ney to se­cure the clean-out.

The drop goal is on, ex­cept that two phases later Sex­ton is down on the ground, stretch­ing his cramp­ing right leg. Ire­land go through an­other 16 phases but for a net gain of about five me­tres be­fore, on 82 min­utes and 37 sec­onds, Mur­ray passes to Sex­ton 45 me­tres out.

Sex­ton launches a win-or-bust drop goal, and raises his hands into the air as the ball crosses the bar and bi­sects the posts. He runs back into his own half and is chased and en­gulfed first by Bundee Aki, then Mur­ray, McFad­den, Hen­shaw and Kear­ney, be­fore Dan Leavy throws him­self on top of the pile.

In­cred­i­bly Ire­land have won.

Ma­chine

All this hap­pened on Feb­ru­ary 3rd, but if there was a Mo­ment of the Year, this was surely it. No one phase of play could bet­ter il­lus­trate Sex­ton’s will-to-win, skill set, de­ci­sion mak­ing, lead­er­ship and nerve.

Ire­land would go on to win the Grand Slam beat­ing Italy, Wales and Scot­land at home in suc­ces­sive games be­fore go­ing to Twick­en­ham on a bit­terly cold St Patrick’s Day to beat Eng­land. By then they had be­come a ma­chine, with Sex­ton “the con­duc­tor of the or­ches­tra” as Joe Sch­midt likes to call him.

Sch­midt risked nam­ing Sex­ton on the bench for the first test against Aus­tralia in or­der to give Joey Car­bery a start. It was the only time Sex­ton lost in an Ire­land shirt in 2018. Akin to the Lions, Sex­ton re­turned for the se­cond and third tests, as Ire­land won both to seal a first se­ries win Down Un­der since 1979.

In the past month, Sex­ton guided Ire­land to home wins over Ar­gentina and, for the first time ever, the All Blacks in Dublin. In his last 13 test starts for Ire­land and the Lions, Sex­ton has been on the win­ning side 12 times and drawn the other.

Sex­ton, and most prob­a­bly Sch­midt, will be among a del­e­ga­tion from Ir­ish rugby to be taken by pri­vate char­ter to Monte Carlo for to­mor­row’s awards din­ner. Of the 15 awards, the most pres­ti­gious is Player of the Year, where Sex­ton has been nom­i­nated along with the All Blacks pair of Beau­den Bar­rett and Reiko Ioane, and the Spring­boks due of Faf de Klerk and Mal­colm Marx. That short­list was drawn up af­ter mem­bers of the In­ter­na­tional Rugby Play­ers sub­mit­ted their nom­i­na­tions, on foot of which sup­port­ers were asked to vote on so­cial me­dia.

In­te­gral

A panel of eight - Mag­gie Alphonsi (ENG), Fa­bien Galthié (FRA) Ge­orge Gre­gan (AUS), Richie McCaw (NZL), Brian O’Driscoll (IRE) Agustín Pi­chot (ARG), John Smit (RSA) and Clive Wood­ward (ENG) - then took all this into con­sid­er­a­tion be­fore con­duct­ing a con­fer­ence call this week to agree upon their choice.

Sex­ton was also an in­te­gral part of Le­in­ster’s Heineken Cup and Guin­ness Pro14 dou­ble, al­beit the award is based solely on achieve­ments in in­ter­na­tional rugby in the cal­en­dar year, dat­ing back to Jan­uary 1st, and so does not take into ac­count pro­vin­cial or club achieve­ments.

“I have a fair idea which way I am vot­ing,” said O’Driscoll this week. “I would think on the bal­ance of what has gone on this year with some­one that has pulled it out of the fire for Ire­land, scor­ing a 45 me­tre drop goal, I know it is not based as much on pro­vin­cial play but he has man­aged to win a Euro­pean Cup and the Pro14.

“They also won the (Aus­tralia) se­ries and now they will be un­beaten in Novem­ber, I think it is very hard to go away from a guy that has been front and cen­tre in all those per­for­mances and vic­to­ries. So, yes I will be vot­ing for the Ire­land num­ber ‘10’.”

As one can also tell both from the short­list it­self and re­cent his­tory, this award leans heav­ily to­wards the south­ern hemi­sphere. As well as four of the five nom­i­nees, New Zealand and South Africa have also pro­vided 12 of the 17 pre­vi­ous win­ners. Fur­ther­more, 10 of them have been All Blacks, in­clud­ing the last six, and Bar­rett is seek­ing to em­u­late McCaw and Dan Carter as a three-time win­ner, and in the process be­com­ing the first man to win three in a row.

The only Ir­ish­man to win the award was Keith Wood in its in­au­gu­ral year of 2001, since when there have only been four other Eu­ro­peans, Fa­bien Galthié in 2002, Jonny Wilkin­son in 2003, Shane Wil­liams in 2008 and Thierry Dusautoir in 2011.

World Class

Sex­ton has served his time and, pound for pound, is prob­a­bly play­ing bet­ter than ever. He ticks ev­ery box, be it pass­ing, di­rect­ing the play, dis­tribut­ing or his line and tac­ti­cal kick­ing. He seems to be as tough, if not tougher than ever. Brave to a fault, he’s never shirked the phys­i­cal stuff.

All the while en­gag­ing with his own play­ers and, eh, some­times the ref­eree and op­po­nents, he then some­how calms down his heart rate to take the shots at goal, and has be­come a world class goal-kicker.

Sex­ton has landed 39 out of 50 kicks at goal for Ire­land this year, for a ra­tio of 78%, whereas Bar­rett has landed 34 out of 48 for a 71% re­turn. Ad­mit­tedly, Bar­rett has scored an­other seven tries this year, in­clud­ing four in one ex­traor­di­nary, 30-point per­for­mance against Aus­tralia at Eden Park last Au­gust. This takes his tally to 31 in 72 tests, the most by an out­half in the his­tory of test rugby, and he’s still only 27! Bar­rett has scored 115 points this year in test rugby, Sex­ton 96. But, but con­trast, Bar­rett had a rel­a­tively mixed bag of a year, be­ing on the los­ing side twice. In the de­feat to the Spring­boks in Welling­ton, Bar­rett missed four out of six kicks at goal.

What height­ens Sex­ton’s chances of break­ing the All Blacks’ mo­nop­oly on this award is that the two play­ers went head to head last Satur­day, and the panel did not make a fi­nal de­ci­sion un­til this week.

Even Joe Roko­coko ad­mit­ted be­fore the game that he saw this it as a shoot-out for World Player of the Year.

“I think this game will dic­tate who is the best num­ber 10 in the world at the mo­ment.”

If so, then there should only be one win­ner, one Johnny Sex­ton.

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