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Gerry Thornley: We will never again see the like of Johnny Sexton

No Ireland rugby player gave more or achieved more than the recently retired outhalf

He could be feisty, spiky and grumpy, albeit that was also something of a caricature. He could be funny, sharp, engaging, thoughtful and intelligent too. Most of all he was a brilliant rugby player, ultra-competitive, fearless, had the full range of skills. He was creative, prolific, uber demanding, high achieving, the captain and talisman, and ultimately, when you think of it, tough and durable too.

The debate will continue as to whether Johnny Sexton is the greatest Irish rugby player of all time. But one thing’s for sure: dating back to his Leinster debut as a replacement against the Border Reivers on April 7th, 2006, over the ensuing 17½ years, 372 games and 3,175 points for his province, Ireland ‘A’, Racing, the Lions and Ireland, no-one gave more to the cause.

Well, he’s gone now, and the Long Goodbye became a sudden and deflating one. Thanks to the lopsided draw, it was always distinctly possible Sexton and Ireland would suffer another quarter-final exit.

So it came to pass, in the most heroic yet dispiriting of all Ireland’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeats, even eclipsing Michael Lynagh’s last-ditch try for the eventual champions in Lansdowne Road in 1991.


So there will be no fairytale finale in Paris next Saturday night, no iconic pictures of Sexton lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy. That would certainly have sealed the deal, with not only Sexton’s status as Ireland’s greatest rugby player brooking no argument, but most likely a standing as the country’s greatest ever sportsman as well.

He and we were entitled to dream. Although his elevation to the captaincy by Andy Farrell was questioned when the head coach made the call in January 2020, Sexton led Ireland to a Triple Crown, a Grand Slam, a historic series win in New Zealand, the third-longest winning run in Test history and the world’s number one ranking for more than a year.

Had Ireland managed three more wins, Farrell, Sexton et al would have changed the face of Irish rugby, and maybe even Irish sport, forever, while enjoying the lifelong adoration and trappings that would have ensued.

There have only been nine World Cup-winning captains and nine World Cup-winning head coaches and each has, accordingly, enjoyed a popularity and profile befitting this. Twenty years on from England’s sole triumph in 2003 with their golden generation, Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson and more remain television and radio pundits and high-profile figures within the sport.

Yet, regardless of what the future holds for Sexton, one of the most jarring aspects of coming to terms with the last week is that Sexton has played his last game of rugby. His playing career is no more.

This begs several questions. If Ireland could not smash their World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling, much less win the whole thing, with Sexton in their ranks, then how the hell will they do so without him? Indeed, generally, what will Leinster and Ireland do without him? And where in the pantheon of Irish greats does he stand?

Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell could bend games through their brilliance and sheer force of nature, but Sexton certainly belongs in the conversation and must be considered the most high-achieving and decorated Irish rugby player of all time.

He is Ireland’s record points scorer of all time and his haul of 1,108 points (eclipsing Ronan O’Gara at this World Cup) could well stand for all time. Even his tally of 18 tries is joint eighth on Ireland’s all-time list.

He was the driving force in the Six Nations title wins of 2014 and 2015, and the Grand Slams of 2018 and 2023 (starting all but two of those 20 games, both of them against Italy).

He started all three Tests in the historic, comeback series win in New Zealand. He started the second and third Tests in the comeback series win over Australia in 2018. Beginning with his second Test against South Africa in November 2009, a week after his debut against Fiji, Sexton has started seven Tests against the Springboks and been on the winning side five times.

He started all four of Leinster’s Champions Cup final wins in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2018, and won a Magners League title and four Pro14s with his province, where he also eclipsed Felipe Contepomi as their all-time leading scorer with 1,646 points in 189 games. That figure may also never be matched, and all this was achieved despite a regrettable two-year sabbatical with Racing ‘92 in Paris, in a city and a country that never understood him, and where he was free game for some of their media, who betrayed him as a caricature, a pantomime villain to be booed.

He started all three Tests in the Lions’ series win in Australia in 2013, and the victorious second Test and drawn third Test in New Zealand in 2017. And if Warren Gatland and Gregor Townsend had picked Sexton for the South African tour in 2021, they’d have won that series too.

But for that we should thank Gatland and Townsend, for it spared Sexton the rigours of that grim tour to South Africa behind closed doors and also stirred his motivational juices. He’s never been one to take rejection well.

One of O’Driscoll’s most significant achievements is that he endured at the top until he was 35, amid chants of “one more year”. Yet during the World Cup, Sexton eclipsed the great one and every other Irish player who has played Test rugby by becoming the country’s oldest player of all time at 38. And the way he played at this World Cup, it’s not gilding the lily to suggest he could easily have played on for one more year as well, certainly in the well-paid, low-demanding All Blacks’ retirement home in Japan.

Perhaps his astonishing longevity explains why not even O’Driscoll could generate as much unstinting loyalty from his players as Sexton eventually did, for they must have appreciated and even been slightly in awe of his professionalism and fitness levels into his late 30s.

Although it was not surprising, it was still striking how last week’s disappointment among the players was exacerbated by having wanted to win the World Cup for Sexton. As Jack Conan, Iain Henderson and even relative newcomers came and went from the post-match mixed zone, their lament for Sexton was genuinely moving and unlike anything this writer has heard for another retiring teammate.

In this and much else, Sexton bloody earned it, for it wasn’t always plain sailing for him, and this perhaps has also contributed to his inner drive and longevity.

Although he scored a match-clinching drop goal when St Mary’s College won the 2002 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final while still in fourth year, when he finished his school years, Sexton was only brought into the Leinster sub-academy.

He stopped studying chemical engineering in college as he didn’t like it and his parents wouldn’t let him train in the sub-academy unless he found himself a job, which he duly did. After some good performances for St Mary’s in the AIL he was picked for the Irish Under-21s and that in turn led to him being promoted into the full Leinster academy the following season.

Even then Sexton was back playing for St Mary’s in the AIL after being taken off at half-time in Leinster’s defeat away to Castres in December 2008 by Michael Cheika. Sexton rebuilt his confidence with St Mary’s and the Irish A side under Declan Kidney, made the most of cameos off the bench with Leinster. Then, in the semi-final against Munster at Croke Park, Contepomi’s early injury proved the sliding doors moment in Sexton’s career, as he guided Leinster to their breakthrough first European star. When he made his Irish debut the following November against Fiji at the RDS, Sexton was already 24.

Not even O’Driscoll could have shaped the 2011 Heineken Cup final as much as Sexton did with that two-try, 28-point haul in the comeback from 22-6 down in the final against Northampton.

Leinster won three finals in four seasons between 2009 and 2012, their semi-final defeat away to Toulouse in 2010 coming when Sexton was injured. Working in tandem with Joe Schmidt again, with Ireland he won the Six Nations in 2014 and 2015. For normal players, they would have been the prime years, between 23 and 29, but Sexton’s golden time came later, in his 30s. With age came a coach-like, on-field vision and appreciation of space, for both himself and teammates.

‘Le Drop’ kickstarted the campaign for the 2018 Grand Slam and the World Player of the Year award, as well as endearing him to supporters. The way his teammates engulfed him when he marked his 100th cap against Japan in November 2021 also demonstrated how adored Sexton was within the squad.

It’s incredible to think that until last week he was still going strong. As in life, we don’t always get what we deserve in sport. The show will go on, and Ross Byrne, Jack Crowley, Sam Prendergast, Joey Carbery, Harry Byrne, Jack Carty and others will jostle for the 10 jersey.

Sexton’s enormous legacy will no doubt live on in the changing room and the training pitch in the way he set standards, perhaps in players regurgitating Sextonisms and recalling how their former captain would have insisted on drills and skills being perfected.

Perhaps he will resurface as a pundit or, preferably, as a coach. One imagines it will not be easy for him to stay away from the game that has dominated his life, although he assuredly needs a break now after this biggest of all disappointments – and not least from dealing with referees.

In any event, he was a total one-off. No Irish player gave more or achieved more than Sexton. Truly, we’ll never see his like again.

By the Numbers

Ireland: Played 118. Points 1,108.

Leinster: Played 189. Points 1,646.

Racing: Played 40. Points 350.

Lions: Played 14 (including 6 Tests). Points 5.

Ireland ‘A’: Played 11. Points 66.