Rugby World Cup: Johnny Sexton faces one last challenge – and it is the most exciting yet of his remarkable career

Ireland’s celebrated outhalf has resolved to tick the one relatively empty box among his achievements by breaking Ireland through that quarter-final ceiling

In the aftermath of Ireland’s anticlimactic quarter-final thrashing by the All Blacks in Tokyo, Johnny Sexton’s Rugby World Cup race looked to have been run. In a dog-eared Irish script, his three tournaments had brought only disappointment. Time had surely run out. He was 34 after all.

Not long after returning home though, Sexton had resolved to tick the one relatively empty box in his stellar career by competing in his fourth World Cup at 38 in France 2023 and steering Ireland through that quarter-final glass ceiling.

If you made the mistake of chuckling when he first made clear his intentions, you didn’t do so again. He was deadly serious.

And so it has come to pass. Sexton has not only made his fourth World Cup at the age of 38, but is captain and talisman of, in all probability, the best Irish side ever; certainly one with an unsurpassed body of work heading into this 10th quadrennial global shindig.


In the last two-and-a-half years, Ireland have become only the sixth side in history to secure a series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand (thus making Sexton only the sixth captain to do so) and backed that up with a Grand Slam and successive Triple Crowns, while beating all Tier 1 opposition in their most recent clashes.

Sexton’s roll of honour is already unprecedented in the history Irish rugby. Two Grand Slams among four Six Nations titles in total and series wins in New Zealand and Australia with Ireland, four Champions Cups, one Challenge Cup and six Magners Leagues/Pro12s titles, a Churchill Cup with Ireland ‘A’, an ever present in both a Lions’ Test series win in Australia and drawn series in New Zealand, and only the second Irishman to be crowned World Player of the Year.

Of the four Six Nations-winning campaigns, Sexton has started 18 of 20 games, missing just two outings against Italy, as well as both wins over Australia and both over the All Blacks, all four Champions Cup finals, the Challenge Cup final and was on the losing side only once in five Test starts for the Lions.

Yet World Cups have prompted only regrets. Back in 2011, in their second pool game against Australia, Sexton’s second penalty out of four in the 50th minute, in addition to a superb drop goal, pushed Ireland 9-6 in front against Australia.

Ronan O’Gara replaced Gordon D’Arcy a minute later, with Sexton shifting to inside centre, and within a further minute, from another scrum penalty 45 metres out, Sexton’s kick hit the post. Thereafter, O’Gara assumed the placekicking duties following another scrum penalty in the 63rd minute, from 30 metres, and landed yet another scrum penalty in the 71st minute from close range to seal a momentous and deserved 15-6 win.

Who knows how things might have panned out for the remainder of that World Cup but for that missed kick by Sexton against the upright he would probably have retained the placekicking and finished with five out of seven rather than two out of five in an 18-6 win over the Wallabies. That in turn would have made it harder for Declan Kidney to change course at outhalf.

However, Sexton’s two from five return against Australia compounded his opening effort on an even more horrid night in New Plymouth when landing two out of six in the 22-10 win over the USA.

By contrast, in Ireland’s third pool game, O’Gara landed seven out of eight in the 62-12 win over Russia and backed that up with six out of seven in 36-0 win over Italy as for the first time Ireland won all four games to top their pool. So, when it came to the quarter-final, Kidney opted to start O’Gara again on a typically windy night in Wellington.

Ironically, despite having the elements behind them in the first half, after being rocked by an early Wales seven-pointer, three times Ireland went to the corner rather than take kicks at goal before O’Gara opted for a successful three-pointer.

He also drew the sides level when converting a Keith Earls try early in the second half, but within five minutes Mike Phillips scored an opportunist blindside try. After Sexton was introduced in place of O’Gara in the 55th minute, a try by Jonathan Davies 10 minutes later put Wales out of sight at 22-10.

At the 2015 World Cup, Sexton was 30 and the established Irish outhalf in probably the best Irish side to date at a World Cup which again completed a 100 per cent pool campaign with a commanding but costly 24-9 win over France. Sexton was one of the casualties, along with Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony, and this was compounded by Sean O’Brien’s suspension. The quartet joined the injured Jared Payne in the stands as Argentina ended Ireland’s campaign with a 43-20 win in the quarterfinals in Cardiff.

Come the 2019 World Cup, Sexton finally started in his first quarter-final at 34, but a year after their golden 2018, he and Ireland were damaged goods and horribly off-colour when routed 46-14 in the quarterfinals by the All Blacks in Tokyo Stadium.

The inner drive to atone for World Cup disappointments is something that Sexton has always had ever since he started playing sport, according to his father Jerry.

The latter was on the first Irish Schools’ side in 1975 with Donal Spring, Johnny Murphy, Jimmy Bowen and others, and as he was living in Leeson Street while studying Commerce in UCD, chose Bective Rangers.

Sexton’s late grandfather, John Sexton, was a Listowel businessman, while his grandmother Brenda (née Keane) passed away recently. Indeed Sexton attended her removal the day before the squad flew to Portugal for their pre-World Cup camp in the Algarve. Sexton’s godfather Billy Keane (no relation) owns a pub in Listowel, as does his uncle Willie, who played for Ireland, in Limerick.

Sexton is also a keen golfer, and a member of both Ballybunion and Milltown, a sport that is also in the genes on his mother’s side of the family, who hail from Rathgar, as Clare’s father John Nestor played golf for Ireland.

In any event, as it was his father’s club, hence Sexton’s rugby journey began with Bective Rangers when he started playing mini rugby with the club before St Mary’s took over.

Although he helped them win the 2002 Leinster Schools Senior Cup, when aged 16 in fourth year, with a drop goal in the final against Belvedere College, he was injured in his final year and on leaving school there was no place in the Leinster academy for him.

However, he immediately began playing for the St Mary’s firsts in the AIL, and on seeing him do so, the then Irish Under-21 coach Mark McDermott included Sexton in the squad for the World Championships in Argentina.

“That changed everything,” according to Sexton senior, and on foot of that his son was invited into the Leinster academy.

Sexton and Sean O’Brien were in the academy together and would go on to be team-mates for the province and Ireland (making their Test debuts on the same day against Fiji at the RDS in November 2009), winning the 2015 Six Nations and two Heineken Cups together as well as playing in two World Cups and two Lions tours.

“Johnny was quite pudgy in those days,” recalled O’Brien of their academy days. “But you could see how good he was, even at that stage. I always thought he was class because of the way he passed the ball. He wasn’t as grumpy as he is now, but he definitely had a big attitude about him, even back then. He was similar to the person and player he is now. He kept everyone on their toes.”

Even then, of course, Sexton needed another lucky break towards the end of the 2008-09 season. He began the pool stages on the bench in the bonus point wins over Edinburgh and Wasps, when playing the entire second half, and started the 33-3 round three game at home to Castres when kicking five from five.

In the reverse fixture the following Friday, Sexton converted his own try to leave Leinster 12-9 ahead at the end of the first-half, but Michael Cheika hauled him off during the interval and they lost 18-15.

With Isa Nacewa at ‘10′ and Felipe Contepomi the goal-kicking ‘12′, Sexton was an unused sub the following week in the defeat away to Ulster and dropped from the 23 altogether at home to Connacht as well as the January Heineken Cup games away to Wasps (a 12-19 loss) and at home to Edinburgh (a desultory 12-3 win).

Out of favour with Cheika, Sexton rebuilt his confidence playing in the AIL – subsequently admitting he might never have achieved what he did subsequently without his club – and when selected by Declan Kidney in the Irish ‘A’ team for the Six Nations.

He was restricted to half-hour cameos in four Magners League games but was again left out of the 23-man squad in the 6-5 Heineken Cup quarter-final win away to Harlequins, with Contepomi at ‘10′, as he was a fortnight later at home to Glasgow in the League, when Sexton was back on the bench.

After his introduction for the last half-hour, Leinster scored four of their five tries, so maintaining a trend in which their strike-rate for tries was markedly higher with Sexton at ‘10′, something that was highlighted in The Irish Times.

The penny must have dropped. Sexton was belated recalled to the squad for the semi-final against Munster at Croke Park. Immediately after replacing the stricken Contepomi, Sexton landed a penalty and helped set up tries either side of the interval by Fitzgerald and D’Arcy.

They were Leinster’s first tries in the competition since Sexton’s own first-half score in the round four defeat in Castres.

After a monster drop goal against Leicester in the final in Edinburgh, Sexton landed penalties either side of converting Jamie Heaslip’s try, and his career was up and running.

He regrets the sojourn to Racing 92 for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, but has gone on to endear himself to Leinster and Irish fans with his achievements, all the more so since “le drop” in Paris to kick-start the 2018 Grand Slam.

As Ronan O’Gara put it on the eve of Sexton steering Ireland to another Slam last March: “I think what pleases me the most is probably that he has inner contentment. I think for a long number of years he felt maybe underappreciated or that sometimes he felt, not that the world was against him, but he may not have been recognised for the player he was because he was a late starter.

“But I think that’s come full circle and I think there’s a great appreciation for what he’s done for the game in Ireland and most definitely for the consistency of how Leinster play but also Ireland.”

There’s also Sexton’s profound influence as an off-field leader. Two visitors to the Irish team room in the week of that Grand Slam coronation against England were taken aback by how player-driven the meeting was and how Sexton mostly said very little, but when he did, the respect with which his words were afforded.

Then there is his impact on the pitch. Not everything goes through him as first receiver nearly as much any more in “Fazball”, yet Sexton still directs the traffic, identifies the space and pulls the strings ahead of anyone else.

As Jamison Gibson-Park once put it: “It’s always the same for me, nothing really changes, he goes about his business he’s probably the most driven I’ve ever seen, especially for someone his age, he just turns up every day. With Johnny the understanding of the game is on another level, a joy to work with really.

“I spend nearly every day with him. I don’t know, I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing his trumpet too much but his intellect is just, he sees the game so early.”

As is the way of sport and life, there will always be other regrets which Sexton will have to take into retirement with him, notably not leading Leinster to that cherished fifth star, and not completing the Lions’ cycle by being part of the tour to South Africa – even if Sexton, Leinster and Ireland were beneficiaries of him being excused such punishment while also adding to his motivational juices these past two years.

Despite having played the most minutes of any of the outhalves in the preceding 2021 Six Nations, Warren Gatland doubted whether Sexton could play in three successive Tests. Sexton duly gave the lie to that theory a year later in Ireland’s landmark series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Of course, Ireland’s hopes at this World Cup hinge on the durability of key individuals, Sexton uppermost among them, and having just turned 38, those concerns are even more valid now.

It will have rankled with Sexton that he was denied an Aviva Stadium farewell in front of a capacity crowd against England in Ireland’s penultimate warm-up game due to his three-week suspension.

Yet there is something almost fitting that his final act in an Irish jersey on home soil was almost literally putting his body on the line in attempting to stop an English maul while captaining Ireland to a first Grand Slam in Dublin.

“He’s been saying all week this is what dreams are made of,” said Andy Farrell in the wake of that victory. “It doesn’t come around that often, and it’s unbelievably fitting that in my opinion the best player ever to play for Ireland is able to sign off on a Grand Slam, on St Patrick’s weekend, in front of his own crowd. There are a lot of stars that have aligned over the course of the last eight weeks and come together this evening.”

Whatever about being the best ever – O’Driscoll could do things on a pitch not even the current Irish captain could attempt – there’s certainly an argument for stating that as a goal-kicking outhalf as well as captain and talisman, Sexton has been the most influential.

That three-week suspension at least ensured we didn’t have to fret like mother hens every time Sexton took a hit in a warm-up friendly, so helping to ensure that the Irish captain has fulfilled his stated aim of four years ago.

Now he faces one last challenge, and it just happens to be the most exciting one of his remarkable career.