Stuart Lancaster says Johnny Sexton is “100% committed” to Leinster, as the head coach dismissed speculation linking the out-half with a move to Lyon.
The 34-year old’s name was in the headlines over the weekend, with reports in French media suggesting a big money return to France — where he played for Racing from 2013 to 2015.
“He was linked with Lyon, or Lyon were linked with him?” smiled Lancaster, who does not seem like a coach concerned about losing his star player.
“The first I heard about it was [Monday] morning actually. The only thing I can say is, the last conversation with him is that he is 100% committed. His contract is through to 2021 from my understanding. He is committed to Leinster, committed to Ireland.
“The only conversations I ever have with Johnny is about doing well for Leinster and hopefully do well for Ireland as well.
“I would be very surprised if there was anything in it.” While Sexton seems unlikely to ever pull on a Lyon jersey, he won’t be pulling on a Leinster kit before 2020, thanks to a knee injury sustained in the win over Northampton Saints in Franklin’s Garden 10 days ago.
Leinster’s medical update yesterday said the player will return to a specialist in the UK in the coming weeks, and while the player himself is hopeful he can be fit for the Six Nations, the province still have no timescale for his return.
“There is nothing more really,” Lancaster said, “he had the injury, he is in the early stages of his recovery.
He will go back and get an assessment from the specialist and he will give a more definite guideline about when his return to play will be. It is still early stages. It has only been a week.
Sexton was still included yesterday in Andy Farrell’s first squad as Ireland head coach, where he will be joined for the first time by Leinster colleague Jamison Gibson-Park.
The New Zealand-born scrum-half became eligible for Ireland in August, three years after he arrived from the Hurricanes, but was not included in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans.
Farrell, keen to put his own stamp on his Ireland setup, though has brought in both Gibson-Park and Connacht’s Caolin Blade — with Kieran Marmion missing out entirely. With Conor Murray, John Cooney, and Leinster teammate Luke McGrath also included, the Kiwi-born No.9 faces a tough battle to even get close to the bench.
But Lancaster has seen the 27-year-old grow over recent seasons, since arriving from New Zealand as a shy and retiring figure. “It’s an interesting one for Andy, obviously there are some really good scrum-halves playing well at the moment in Ireland,” said Lancaster.
“There is a lot of pressure in that position and now Jamison is eligible, I certainly think he will come into the equations, for sure, because he has got a point of difference.
“I think he has really grown his personality. He has x-factor as a player, his ability to see a gap, he is very, very quick. He is very competitive, he has got a good core skill base.
“His box-kicking, his pass, speed of ball is always good with him. But what I think has really grown is the confidence within himself. It was a big move for him to come from New Zealand where he had lived all of his life to set up and bring up his family in Ireland.
“The first year or so, is quiet, naturally. It took him a while to really understand that a top class scrum-half needs to have a personality and be the captain of the team really in terms of driving everything.
“I think he has really grown that. It’s fine doing that in a Leinster environment where he knows everyone. Internationally, it’s different. Again, because it’s a new environment with new coaches and new players.
“If he was given the opportunity, that’s what I would like to see from him — that same personality that has grown here and exists in that environment.
“It will be competitive. Luke (McGrath) is obviously a good player, you have got two good scrum-halves at Connacht playing well — (Kieran) Marmion and (Caolin) Blade, you’v got (Conor) Murray obviously and you’ve got (John) Cooney who seems to be scoring every time he plays. So, it is a very competitive position.”
Farrell’s 45-man squad omitted some big names like Rob Kearney and Seán Cronin, and Lancaster says established players will need to be on their toes under the new coach.
He said: “I think if you brought it back to how Andy will be thinking, I would have thought if I was in his position, he has got to build a team that wins in the here and now in the Six Nations, that gets him off to a good start, but he has also got to build towards 2023.
“If I was sat as one of those senior players in the group, I wouldn’t be resting on my laurels.
“There will be a lot of competition in every position and some of the young players coming through, not just at Leinster but in all the provinces mean that the senior players are going to need to be at their very best, for sure.”