Ronan O'Gara: Saluting Johnny Sexton - with half an eye on the next in line

There was a full seven years between my 100th cap for Ireland and the November morning in 2017 when I sat down in Christchurch with Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock for a first chat as a new Crusader coach.
Ronan O'Gara: Saluting Johnny Sexton - with half an eye on the next in line

Johnny Sexton: The latest Ireland player to reach 100 caps. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

There was a full seven years between my 100th cap for Ireland and the November morning in 2017 when I sat down in Christchurch with Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock for a first chat as a new Crusader coach.

As keen as I might have been to tap into their rugby and culture, Read was quicker off the mark, quizzing who was the Irish coach on the occasion of my 100th Irish cap off the bench against South Africa in 2010. Momentarily, I wasn’t sure where he and Whitelock were going but it was soon evident the store they placed in someone reaching 100 test appearances for their country. This was a huge honour, they said. How dare Ireland start you on the bench for that game.

It is a conversation that stayed with me for a few reasons. First off, the Crusaders leadership had done their due diligence on the new assistant coach, and also, they understood perfectly well what it took in terms of personal effort and sacrifice to get to that stage of an international rugby career. It also stirred up some unwelcome feelings of bitterness in me, emotions that have resurfaced a bit this week when I see how Ireland are doing right by Jonny Sexton on the occasion of his 100th cap against Japan tomorrow.

With your family in the crowd, and 99 international experiences in the rear-view mirror, Kieran Read’s — and dare I say the All Blacks’ — way of looking at these moments was: respect the achievement in the right way, it doesn’t happen very often.

There are only six Irish centurions ahead of Johnny. By any benchmark, it is a momentous achievement. When rugby supporters are speaking to the topic of Ireland’s succession stakes at number 10, they must park such considerations for this weekend. Because of what he has done for Irish rugby, Sexton utterly deserves to start tomorrow and be captain for the occasion.

Of course, the nature of these things determine that once the game kicks off against Japan, everyone will revert to judging Sexton and his 36-year-old body with one eye on the next World Cup in 2023. Nobody can be accused of getting ahead of themselves; Sexton himself has referred to a shift in mindset in this Ireland camp, with everyone looking beyond the short-term that has been a staple and unwise mindset of Irish rugby for too long.

The side Andy Farrell has selected for tomorrow is picked to win. We will only get a true sense of Ireland’s autumn priorities with the side selected to play New Zealand on Saturday week. The first priority — respect and decency being central to same — is for Jonny Sexton to get his 100th cap. I presume the rules change somewhat after that.

Someone reminded me that Harry Byrne has only 20-odd minutes of competitive rugby this season so the balance between who plays how many minutes over the course of the next three blocks of international rugby will be both revealing and intriguing. We have to presume these conversations are central at management level, but it would help greatly if the Leinster Byrnes, Joey Carbery, or Jack Carty could seize the initiative and provide clarity to those conversations with their own form. Force the bloody issue. For all his undoubted quality, we should be talking about Johnny as a break glass emergency in the context of World Cup planning and not as a starting 10 for Ireland at the tail end of 2023. I still think Sexton, even at that age, is capable of a one-off big performance with his quality, but what happens when he has to go Saturdays on repeat is that the body breaks down.

There will be a part of Andy Farrell still thinking that nothing speaks louder than W’s when you are feeling a small bit of pressure. Victories buy you momentum and time. It might be that Ireland look to build some momentum this autumn, take the Six Nations on its merits and opt to go the road of leaving Sexton at home for next summer’s tour of New Zealand. When you are operating in a 36-year-old body, then the 2023 World Cup is simply too far away to be wondering who is the opening night out-half, and it is somewhat ludicrous to be banking on a 38-year-old being the pivot on that occasion. I don’t care who he is. People can talk about Cristiano Ronaldo
because soccer is essentially non-contact. People can mention Tom Brady but he has an offensive line to protect him on every down in Tampa Bay.

Rugby is a phase game of high intensity and impact. Give me any one of those young English backs rows sizing up a 38-year-old out-half. It won’t end well, I can assure you of that. They will hop off the ground and go back after the 10 for fun. Except that the out-half and his colleagues won’t see the funny side. I wonder are the other countries wondering about us at this stage.

One hundred caps is a landmark in itself, and I use that word deliberately. It is a moment to take stock. You are not a better player for your 101st cap, no more than you were after your 75th cap. It is the preparation now, the mental and physical ability to get to the required pitch. Johnny Sexton will know himself the continued levels of excellence he has reached game after game, but no one in the opposition midfield will give a second thought to that. The bouquets will all be before the opening whistle tomorrow. And Johnny won’t feel any less sore on Sunday morning because it was a milestone occasion.

International test experience is an incremental process. There is an initial 10-15 caps where your head is spinning before you find the ground has stopped moving beneath you. In fact, you start enjoying taking control of the joystick and shaping the direction of the play as you visualise it. For a while, there is a sense of infallibility — it isn’t real, and it doesn’t last — but you stop worrying about your place and standing and begin challenging yourself. You are your own biggest opponent. The competition is internal. I am sure Brian O’Driscoll found that, just as I did and Rory Best, Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, and John Hayes.

For obvious reasons, I have half an eye on both New Zealand and France this autumn. The All Blacks are already well underway in finding round pegs for round holes and, by comparison, Ireland looks rather pedestrian in terms of the approach to 2023. Or is that just a trick of the calendar?

How far and wide will the net goes this autumn for Ireland? If you are going strong team v Japan, strong team v the All Blacks, I don’t know how far that takes us, but one refers back to the point about Harry Byrne. There are also a lot of fellas who have been around that squad for some time but haven’t played many international minutes.

I’d like to leave you with an interesting, if head-wrecking, rugby statistic from the Top 14 last weekend. Which team became only the fourth in the Top 14 over the last decade to rack up over 900 metres with the ball in hand — and the first to lose while doing so?

Shame-faced as I am to say it, La Rochelle carried for 1,042m in Perpignan and contrived to lose the game 22-13. The other three sides to carry for over 900m in a game all won by 45 points and more. I may need another column to explain that one away because we are back on the horse tonight at home to Bordeaux-Begles. Suddenly, the atmosphere is rather different. We should be all about expressing ourselves and concentrating on performance tonight but instead the subconscious is whispering at us: ‘We need to get the result here’.

It puts a bit of a handbrake on people even in words during the week. The language, inadvertently, becomes a little strained. If we’d made it four wins on the bounce, you are not even speaking in terms of winning. It’s about maintaining a good tempo, a good groove, we know what we are doing and what we are about. Now, though, everything is questioned again.

So yes Andy, I hear ya.

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