Sexton can cement his place in Irish sporting history
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Sexton can cement his place in Irish sporting history

IN London, all the big decisions are made at number 10.

So no pressure, Johnny Sexton. It is only a nation's hopes you have to carry on your shoulders this autumn when you travel to the English capital for the eighth staging of rugby's World Cup.

With two of Ireland's group games set for London and the tantalising possibility of a World Cup semi-final, and, whisper it, a final scheduled for Twickenham, the scene is set for Sexton to cement his place in Irish sporting history.

"The fly-half is the man around whom Ireland revolve," wrote Stuart Barnes in his Times column earlier this year. "The best number 10 in the world," agreed Peter Stringer.

Certainly he is one of the most decorated. Shortlisted for World Rugby's player of the year award last year - the only fly-half to make the five-man elite - Sexton has collected Pro 12 titles in 2008 and 2013, Heineken Cup medals in 2009, 2011 and 2012, the Challenge Cup in 2013 and back-to-back Six Nations championships with Ireland in 2014 and 2015.

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Yet he isn't satisfied. A two-year stay in Paris with Racing Metro ended in disappointment. "To be a success, you need to win a trophy," he said. Racing didn't.

Nonetheless the venture was a waste of time - and given how he negotiated a €540,000-annual contract, it wasn't a waste of money.

"Johnny wanted to succeed, and he would do everything possible to succeed," Ronan O’Gara, once his nemesis, but his kicking coach at Racing, said.

"There were times he slipped into his car, turned on the radio, and his French lessons were on. That's what you're dealing with. As a player, he has achieved so much already but I still think there's more in the tank. In the next two to three years, we will see him hit a new level."

Ireland hope it will be this autumn. Ranked third in the world, they have developed a game-plan which isn’t necessarily easy on the eye, but which, significantly, isn’t easy on the opposition either.

Ask Stuart Lancaster. He brought his England team to Dublin in March having gone two-from-two from their opening fixtures. Eighty minutes later, his team had been schooled by Sexton, whose tactical kicking made life a misery for Lancaster’s pair of 21-year-old wingers. “It’s one thing knowing how Ireland will play,” said Lancaster afterwards. “But it’s another thing stopping it.”

With Sexton on song, few debate the fact that Ireland will be hard to stop in this World Cup. “Sexton has been instrumental in shaping Ireland's impressive game-plan,” said Ian McGeechan. “Plus he kicked the pressure points that were the difference between winning and losing.”

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Without him, though, the cover is weak. Without Conor Murray, his half-back partner, Sexton’s composure at the control centre would never be as great. “Johnny is great,” agreed Shaun Payne, the Ireland centre, “but Conor helps a hell of a lot. He too is coming off a superb season.”

Certainly Murray’s maturation into a player whose physical strengths are coupled with an iron-clad belief have facilitated Sexton’s ascent to the status of world number one fly-half. As a pairing their accuracy with the boot has forced opposing defences into positional retreat.

Far from being conservative tacticians, it has been the ability of both players to mix up their game that has proven to be a winning strategy. “Sometimes perception and reality are miles apart,” said Sexton in response to the idea and Ireland were one-trick-ponies. “We showed what we could do with ball in hand against Wales but were a bit inaccurate. Then it clicked against Scotland.”

If they click this autumn then a sustained run in this competition is likely. “It is is no coincidence that Sexton’s improving performances have helped Ireland position themselves as serious contenders for a World Cup semi-final slot,” wrote World Cup winner, Will Greenwood, in his newspaper column.

“He provides reassurance, leadership, voice, physicality, presence and drive. He is missed significantly when he is not there and was put back in the team as quickly as possible for the match against France after a three-month lay-off with concussion.”

There are flaws, Greenwood believes.

“For all his plus points, Sexton is not a glider in the same mould as Carter or Ford. He is more of a sweater, and I mean that in a good way. He hunts more of the big hits, he is a big lad, he likes the Wilkinson-style physicality. There is banter, there is chat, there is attitude. When he attacks the gain line, he is looking to run more himself.

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“He likes to see himself as a frontline, first-up threat. He does bring players into the game, he has a giant next to him in Robbie Henshaw, and he knows Tommy Bowe very well, hitting him with inside balls or late runs from out to in.”

Whether or not he has the stylistic qualities to compare with Carter has not hindered his development, though, with Payne in a good place to compare the two men, having played alongside Carter with the Crusaders, New Zealand’s Super 14 side. “Both men are very similar,” said Payne, “they are relaxed and they get their message across. The two men are able to control a game incredibly well."

Whether or not that is good enough to bring Ireland to a World Cup semi-final, or even further, will come down, largely, to luck and his capacity to stay injury free.

Almost certainly the French will target him, as they did earlier this year in February, when Sexton played his first game in three months, after recovering from a concussion injury and kicked all bar three of Ireland’s points in an 18-11 win.

"In that moment, we got to know Sexton's two best qualities," the former international, Neil Francis would observe in his Sunday Indepedent column. "His right testicle and his left testicle."

His nerve has never been in question, though. From the moment he came of age as a player, stepping off the bench in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final between Leinster and Munster to replace Felipe Contepomi, to kick a difficult penalty with his first touch, he has always had the capacity to cope with pressure.

“The thing about that kick,” wrote Bernard Jackman in his book, Blue Blood, “was that the bagman had brought out the wrong kicking tee. Sexton asked him to go back and get the right one.

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"Seconds must have seemed like minutes as he stood there, looking at that tee. How he had the courage, never mind the patience and presence of mind, to tell the bag man that was absolutely incredible."

What was considerably more impressive was his reaction to Northampton’s first-half performance in the 2011 Heineken Cup final. Trailing 22-6 at half-time — Sexton delivered a rousing speech in the dressing room, referencing Liverpool’s recovery from a 3-0 deficit in their Champions League final in 2005, before scoring two second-half tries en route to a 28-point tally and improbable victory.

"He's so competitive it's funny," Jackman said in an interview earlier this year. "He's the most driven rugby player I've seen. When he speaks there is a rawness and he exposes himself in terms of how much it means to him.”

Being held in high regard means everything to him. “I've worked hard throughout my career to try to get people to think that way of me, so when you hear that, you feel that all your work has paid off. But I've gone through a lot of ups and downs in my career so I will keep my feet firmly on the ground.”

Ireland hope so.

"Johnny's a perfectionist, and a deep thinker, encyclopaedic in his knowledge. He doesn't just know his own role, he knows everyone else's too," Brian O'Driscoll wrote in his book.

"There's a bit of a Roy Keane about him - world-class vision and a mentality that is stubborn and utterly uncompromising in pursuit of excellence and trophies."

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Only one trophy awaits to be won – the most important one of all.