From a confidence boost as a Leinster U20 to being targeted as the British and Irish Lions playmaker, Johnny Sexton has experienced the full range of Michael Cheika compliments and a fair few run-ins with the Australia coach besides.
Yet as IRB world player of the year nominee Sexton’s Ireland bid to upstage Cheika’s Wallabies tomorrow at Aviva Stadium, the Ireland fly-half has nothing but gratitude for the impact the Australian head coach has had on his career.
The Racing Metro star was given his Leinster debut by Cheika in January 2006 but suffered the frustration of having to wait three years to make the blue number 10 jersey his own, his progress blocked by Felipe Contepomi and causing some heated discussions with his then provincial boss.
“I was obviously very eager to break into Leinster team, when you are hungry and when you want to get into the team, you are a bit delusional at times,” Sexton, 29, said yesterday.
“I have to admit, how I thought I could get in instead of Felipe or Gordon (D’Arcy) or Brian (O’Driscoll), looking back now, it was a bit silly. But I suppose it is better to be like that when you are that age than sit back and accept it. Yeah, we had some run-ins and I felt I wanted to play more and I had some run-ins. But eventually he gave me my chance and he gave me my first chance at Leinster and I always be grateful for that.
“I remember playing a Leinster U20s game, playing well and coming off with five minutes to go. I was just sitting on the replacements bench and he came down and I’d never met him before and he just tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘great game’ and ‘I’ll see you training with the senior team during the week’. That was when I was 19, so it gave me the first lift in confidence in my career and going forwards towards professionalism.”
The frustration with Cheika’s selection policy was typified by an incident in December 2008 when, having started a Heineken Cup tie at Castres, the Leinster boss hooked Sexton from the game at half-time, replacing him with Contepomi. The Irishman had converted his own try and taken his team into a 12-9 half-time lead. By full-time, Castres had won the game 15-12.
“He’s a fiery guy and I like that in him. You know where you stand. I was happy with how I had played at half-time and they took me off for Felipe who was coming back from injury. No-one is happy to be taken off at half-time and when you have Felipe on the bench, you want him on to close out the game. Obviously Leinster didn’t but we didn’t fall out over it... I was just disappointed in myself to get taken off at the time. When you are that young and inexperienced, when you get taken off, you don’t look at the bigger picture. I just viewed it as everything being my fault and he’s taken me off, making me the scapegoat; that’s just what you think when you are younger and don’t have the experience and don’t see the bigger picture.
“Especially in our latter years in Leinster, I had a great relationship with him, he gave me my first chance and I have learnt so much from him, in terms of character and trying to drive standards and what’s expected of professional rugby players. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”
Sydney was where their paths crossed most recently, in June 2013 as the Lions took on Cheika’s NSW Waratahs in a tour match that saw the former boss mark Sexton out for special attention, at least by the Ireland star’s recollection.
“I said it a bit in jest,” Sexton clarified yesterday, “They were probably trying to wind me up and it worked but I didn’t let it affect me too much.”
Sexton credits Cheika and Leinster successor-turned-Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt as “similar characters in some ways”.
“They are both fiery in their own way, they both want the best from the team and they drive high standards. I have learned so much from both of them.”
But he added: “It’s not all about Cheiks this week and he’ll probably say the same thing. It’s about Ireland against Australia and the threats they pose; trying to stop them. We have enough on our plate.”
Certainly too much to stop and think about his nomination for the IRB World Player of the Year award, which will be presented to one of the five players on the shortlist at the end of their Test match this weekend.
“My focus is all on Saturday. It would be nice but if I start thinking about it, it is only going to end badly on Saturday. It’s about putting in a performance for Ireland getting another big scalp.”
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