Fit-again Johnny Sexton was crowned Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year last night and declared himself delighted to be playing as much rugby as he can with new French club Racing Metro.
Sexton, 28, has overcome a hip flexor problem that sidelined him for Ireland’s opening autumn international last weekend against Samoa and will be available to renew rivalries with Australia this Saturday.
It was against the Wallabies during the summer that Sexton capped off a momentous final season with Leinster that saw him win the RaboDirect Pro12-Amlin Challenge Cup double by guiding the British & Irish Lions to a first Test series win in 16 years.
Sexton has had little time to reflect on those feats having been married immediately after the Lions tour and headed straight to a new life in Paris with Racing Metro. And though concerns about his workload have been expressed in Ireland, not least by national head coach and former Leinster boss Joe Schmidt, the fly-half said he had no complaints about playing 13 games so far this season compared to the six his Irish team-mates had been limited to by the IRFU ahead of this month’s Tests.
“I have played a lot more than I would have in the past but I always want to play more games so I suppose I went to the right place,” Sexton said. “I think obviously I have played a lot of games, but in fairness to Racing, they know that I have played a lot and are probably aware that they wanted to give me a week off for a rest at some stage.
“But Juan Martin Hernandez came back after the Rugby Championship with a bit of an injury, he couldn’t play.
“Then Jonathan Wisniewski, the other out-half, had been injured for six weeks so literally I was the only option [to sit on the bench against Biarritz two weekends ago].
“They have Benjamin Dambielle, he got an injury himself at the start of the year, they didn’t want to be throwing him in straight away because he hadn’t played since pre-season. I understood where the club were coming from. I was fit, I was ready to play, there was no reason for them not to pick me and they couldn’t really have said, ‘oh, well he’s got a game for Ireland in a couple of weeks, we need to rest him’. They don’t think like that but they have to look after themselves and I have to do what’s best for the club because they’re my employers and that’s the bottom line.”
Not that Sexton was happy to miss out on a chance to play once more for Ireland, having gone down during an Ireland training session in the build-up to the Samoa game. That left him rested by Schmidt and having to watch stand-in Paddy Jackson put in an assured performance as Ireland won 40-9, the Ulster out-half kicking 15 of the points.
“It was a massive blow for me to miss out on the weekend,” Sexton said. “I haven’t played since the Wales and England games in the Six Nations back in February. It feels like ages since I put on the green jersey so I was mad keen to play.
“It’s always tough to watch, turning on the TV and there was not a puff of wind in the stadium, a dry ball and you wish you were out there. I thought Paddy did really well, he was really composed and place-kicked well and controlled the boys around the pitch well. It is great for Ireland that at such a young age he is starting to come through and show some great form for Ulster.
“It was tough to watch, any time you’re competing with them in the squad you don’t like to give them a chance and he got his chance and did really well.”
Sexton said his hip was now ready for action after being rested over the weekend.
“I got a scan and it was a little tight, the scan showed a little strain and it was thought best to rest for the week and I didn’t train, now it’s great.”
The spotlight Sexton remains under at home for his Parisian exploits alongside former Ireland rival Ronan O’Gara, Racing’s assistant coach, has been something of a surprise to both men, the Dubliner said.
“We’re always joking about how much attention we’re getting, ROG is always saying it’s the fifth province now, it seems to have captured everyone’s interests. I was looking forward to getting away from things like that over there but you find yourself that you’re being reported on more over there than you would have been at home.”
Last night’s award, though, was some welcome attention, said Sexton.
“It is probably my first time since school winning an individual award like the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year. It’s not something you set out to achieve, you want to win things from a team perspective but at the end of the day it is nice to see your efforts recognised on an individual basis.
“As an out-half you need to thank all of the players you’ve played with, the coaches as well because you rely on them so heavily.
“It’s a good sign that if the No 10 wins an award that the team has done their job well, too.”
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