Jonathan Sexton has echoed Sean O’Brien’s assertion that the Tullow flanker criticised the British and Irish Lions coaching staff in the confines of the team environment long before he made his frustrations public.
O’Brien was critical of training loads imposed on the squad in the weeks leading up to the first and third Tests against New Zealand when speaking to the media. And he singled out attack coach Rob Howley as someone who struggled to get his points across and stuck in his ways.
Nearly a month passed before Lions coach Warren Gatland faced the press and when he did he expressed disappointment at such opinions being aired publicly. “I went,’ Phew!’ If he wanted to say something, then there is a different forum rather than being critical,” said Gatland.
O’Brien had made his views known to a number of media outlets over the course of at least three different interviews on the same day in September at his home club in Tullow, but then later claimed there had been an element of ‘misinterpretation’.
His views were actually reported accurately and presented fairly and, while Sexton repeated the ‘misinterpretation’ line yesterday, he also made it clear that O’Brien had been just as honest and direct when raising similar matters with the brains trust during the tour itself.
“A Lions tour is different to any other tour we’ve ever been on. It’s hard to compare. A lot of the stuff Sean said he would have said in the rugby environment. It’s pretty harsh, it’s pretty open. A lot of those things he said — bar the one or two he feels were misinterpreted — he would have said at the time.
“I was in meetings where he spoke up and said that he felt that we got this wrong. He said it to the coaches. There were a couple of things that he felt were misinterpreted, how he wanted to say them.”
Sexton, when asked specifically about O’Brien’s claim that the Leinster out-half and Owen Farrell had basically run the team’s attacking game for the second Test, stressed that players routinely take added responsibility on the behest of coach staffs.
“It wasn’t just player power or anything like that. That’s probably the point. Sean spoke to Rob on the phone and explained what he was trying to say. I’ll leave it at that. Those two have sorted it out and he spoke to the coaches involved. Sean had the best interests at heart.”
His final word on the matter was a suggestion that it had now all been sorted and that nothing more would come of it going forward. The truth of that will become apparent when a Welsh team with Gatland and Howley on their coaching ticket visit Ireland during the next Six Nations.
Sexton is excited about the point at which Joe Schmidt and his players find themselves as they approach the three November internationals against South Africa, Fiji, and Argentina. Two years spent bedding in a younger brigade should start to deliver real dividend, he believes.
His own form is reason enough to be optimistic.
Well-rested since the Lions tour, he has been superb for Leinster in his few outings this season, most recently in Glasgow last Saturday where he orchestrated a notable 34-18 bonus-point Champions Cup defeat of the Warriors on Scottish soil.
“For me, I think I can get better and that is how I have always been,” he said.
It’s an encouraging thought as he negotiates his 33rd year and, if Sexton the player is still learning, then so is Sexton the man as he embraces the status of seniority and, in Isa Nacewa’s recent absence, the province’s armband.
His leadership qualities have never been in question but a reputation for crankiness and a quick temper meant he was never a natural choice for captaincy. Not until now, with Brian O’Driscoll among those who feels he has mellowed.
“He hasn’t been at too many training session over the last couple of years,” he laughed.
But has he changed?
“Yeah, look, it is something that I am working on. I have said it openly that I am trying to work on it, like you work on your leadership, how you can deal with people better. It is definitely something that you need to do.
“The older you get the more you need to be making sure you can be that kind of player who can drive things. You have to do it slightly differently when you are older. But, yeah, there is definitely something in me that I have to calm down a bit. I’d rather be that than be a person that needs a kick up the ass every morning. It is about finding the balance really.”
John Fogarty, forwards coach at Leinster, has suggested that the added responsibility has been good for both Sexton and the team, but the player himself was reluctant to dwell on it.
Or on the possibility that he could one day wear the same garment with Ireland.
“Again, it’s not something I want to talk about too much. It’s not something I want to promote myself for.
“It’s something, like I said, that is voted by your peers or the management and it’s something that is an honour that is offered to you or not offered to you.
“Rory (Best) is doing a fantastic job over the last while since Paul (O’Connell) has retired. I am sure he will continue to do a great job over this season and beyond.”
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