Johnny Sexton waited almost a decade to experience the satisfaction of playing a central role in an Ireland Grand Slam success, but he will try not to scratch a similar itch when Leinster contest their first Champions Cup final in six years in Bilbao today.
The Leinster, Ireland, and Lions star, who is bidding to win a fourth European winners medal following the Heineken Cup glories of 2009, 2011, and 2012, had waited since 2009 to make his mark on a Six Nations sweep, having been a non-playing member of the Ireland squad early in his career. That wait came to an end in March, as Joe Schmidt’s men recorded five wins from five with fly-half Sexton front and centre in the glory, kicking the game- winning drop goal to secure victory in round one over France and steering Ireland home from there.
On the eve of his fourth Champions Cup final, the 32-year-old believes thinking about a return to winning ways in Europe’s premier club competition would be a dangerous distraction.
“I suppose that’s where your mind wanders during the week, it takes you different places...why do you want to win the game? Is it for Isa’s last European game, or for the injured guys?” said Sexton following yesterday’s captain’s run training session at the San Mames Stadium, referring to captain Isa Nacewa’s impending retirement.
“You’ve got to go out there and play as best we can, we’ve got to top our quarter-final and semi-final performances, because we know we’re going to have to go to another level to win the game.”
Sexton believes finding that higher level of performance to topple his former club Racing 92 in today’s final is perfectly achievable.
“Even after the Saracens [quarter-final] and the Scarlets [semi-final], there were things throughout those games that we could have done better and it’s always our focus as a group, as management, that we can get better.
“We feel that we need to get better in a lot of areas. We can’t probably go out and play like we did against Scarlets, we have to change it up a little bit, but still keep the fundamentals of our game the same.
“That’s the big challenge: Can you beat a Scarlets-type team and then beat a team like Racing, who are very different?
Thinking about personal achievements, such as a fourth winner’s medal, drew a similar fear of distraction, that it would get him “dreaming and get you thinking about things that you shouldn’t be thinking about.
“I suppose you’ve got to use them as motivation a little bit, but you’ve got to make sure you park them and say that everything comes down to your performance.
“Ultimately, if you want to feel fulfilled at the end of the game, you want to play well as an individual and you’ve got to make the team play well and you’ve to win, so there are a lot of things and it’s in that order of importance, because you’ve got to look after your own job, do what’s best for the team and hopefully the result will follow.”
Racing co-head coach Laurent Travers knows at first hand the influence Sexton can have on a team, having worked with the playmaker in Paris between 2013 and 2015.
“Johnny is a key player with the Lions and Ireland,” said Travers. “He is a leader. He is essential in the Leinster team and the one who launches all their attacks. He is the [link] between the forwards and backs. He sets the tone.”
Asked whether it was an advantage that he had played for Racing, Sexton replied: “Is it an advantage for them or an advantage for me?
“Look, they’re going to know me pretty well. I’d know a lot of their players, but they have a very different squad since I was there, they have a few different coaches and they play a lot different.”
“Sleep can be a struggle, the nerves can be a struggle and you’ve just got to try and focus your attention to getting what’s important right and your preparation and putting all your energy into that and leaving all the distractions and all the hype and try and park it and just really focus on putting in a good performance.
“That’s what we did in the quarter-final, semi-final and during the group stages. That’s been key for us this week and we’ve trained really well, prepared really well and now we’ve just got to go out and do it on the biggest stage.
“I suppose, the older you get the nerves probably get worse, but the way deal with them is probably a little better.”