Sexton can help Leinster grab the lions' share of glory
Outside-half can use European final to confirm status as favourite to be British and Irish No 10 in Australia
Next season – a Lions season – is rising on the horizon and the vast majority of professional rugby players are already bending their minds to it. For Jonny Sexton, the current season refuses to make way. A Heineken Cup final, a RaboDirect Pro12 final and three meetings with the world champion All Blacks separate the Leinster outside-half, a racing certainty to be playing the biggest games of his life a little over a year from now, from a few weeks of blissful anonymity at his regular beach-and-clifftop bolthole in County Kerry. One way or another, Sexton has better things to think about than 2013, however momentous it might turn out to be.
None of which alters the fact that the 26-year-old Dubliner is deep in "Lion elect" syndrome. Over the last year, outside-halves of international calibre have materialised: Rhys Priestland in Wales was the first, followed by Owen Farrell of England and the boldly inventive Greig Laidlaw of Scotland. Yet Sexton is so far ahead in the race to face Australia next June, he is almost out of sight. Only once in recent Lions history – in Wallaby country in 2001 – has there been such a hot favourite for the fabled No 10 jersey: someone sharing the same Christian name, if memory serves.
At first glance, Sexton has little in common with Jonny Wilkinson. Tall, angular and something close to graceful rather than squat, powerful and bustlingly efficient – if he resembles an outside-half of yesteryear, it is the wonderful Wallaby playmaker Stephen Larkham – the Dubliner has built his reputation on attacking prowess. Yet twice in the past few days, coaches who work closely with him have highlighted an infinitely more Wilkinsonian aspect of his game.
"Watch that last play of the Heineken semi-final," said Leinster's Joe Schmidt, referring to the tourniquet-tight victory over Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux last month. "We were under enormous pressure when Clermont, a couple of metres out, went to the edge and sent Jamie Cudmore" – the outsized, not to say brutish lock forward from Canada – "hammering for the line. The man who came flying in to stop him was Jonny. Now Jonny isn't small, but he's a hell of a lot smaller than Cudmore. That's what he brings."
Wilkinson, with his bravery and physicality in the tackle – not to mention his mastery of defensive technique – would have nodded in recognition, just as he would have recognised the words of Mark Tainton, the Ireland kicking coach who has spent many a long training-field hour with Sexton.
"If he reminds me of anyone, it's Henry Honiball," said the Bristolian, who worked with the Springbok outside-half at the West Country club in the late 1990s. "It's saying something, I agree: Henry was incredibly physical. But I see similarities in Jonny. He never shirks it in the tackle. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"And of course, his kicking is right up there at the moment: a 90 per cent success rate in Heineken Cup rugby, 80 per cent-plus at international level. Anything over 80 is acceptable – when you dip below that mark you have an issue to address – so as things stand, we're happy with the way his game is coming along. The thing with Jonny is that he's very, very competitive. There are often a few choice words on the training field when things aren't going to his liking and it's always been his way. He's never been slow to speak his mind.
"When he first came into the Ireland squad he found himself mixing with some pretty experienced players, people who had been around a bit. He wasn't frightened of them then and he's certainly not frightened now. He stands his ground, which is good. He's one of the team leaders these days, so he curbs his ways as appropriate. But the opinions are still there and he makes sure they're heard."
One of those experienced players encountered by Sexton in 2008 was Ronan O'Gara, the Munster outside-half whose kicking game frequently bordered on the sublime. Tainton worked closely with him too, and continues to do so. Rumour has it that the two No 10s are something less than bosom pals – that the rivalry between them could be a lot healthier. Any truth in it?
"There is," Tainton acknowledged, "a very competitive thing going on there, but all that stuff about them not getting on isn't right. I think the relationship is as you'd expect it to be between two players chasing the same international shirt. And it's important to point out here that Ronan isn't finished as a Test player, not by a long way. He wants to be on this forthcoming trip to New Zealand and he wants to make a statement there. If Jonny falls off his game, he'll be ready.
"That rivalry has to be there and when we're all working together with Ireland, every kicking session has an edge to it. If there wasn't an edge, I'd be worried: it would mean someone didn't want it enough. But the idea that their relationship is poor is off the mark. When Jonny first arrived he watched Ronan all the time, paid great attention to the way he went about his training and asked questions of everyone he felt could advise him as to what was required to be an international No 10. We frequently talked about Ronan's schedule and how it was put together. Of course, there was no great secret: what Ronan achieved was down to dedication, honesty and sheer hard work. Jonny took the whole thing on board and we're seeing the results now."
It is easy to see a direct link between Leinster's rise to the summit of the European game – if three Heineken Cup finals in four years is not an unprecedented feat, three titles in four seasons would set a new mark – and Sexton's ascent to world-class status. Before his sudden appearance in the 2009 final (he was drafted in for the injured Felipe Contepomi and contributed 11 points to the defeat of Leicester), the Dubliners had never threatened to win the competition. Since that day in Edinburgh, they have lost only three times in 26 tournament outings.
According to the man himself, those primarily responsible for this success are from Antipodean stock: Michael Cheika, the Australian who planned the 2009 campaign; and Schmidt, the New Zealander who took over when Cheika left for Stade Français.
"Cheika was huge for us," said Sexton, who has spent six years completing a degree in commerce for which he sat his final examination nine days ago. "When he arrived, he pretty much cleared out the province. He was a harsh judge of a player and showed no hesitation in getting rid of those he didn't feel were good enough. Joe has taken it on. The two of them are very different character-wise, but it's been a complementary thing. We've been absolutely blessed to have them and we really appreciate what they've done for us."
He also credits two of Schmidt's countrymen, the former All Black forwards Jono Gibbes and Greg Feek, for their work with the Leinster pack: everyone's idea of a pushover once upon a time; no one's idea of a soft touch nowadays.
"It's always rewarding for us backs when the things we rehearse in training work out perfectly during a game, but it doesn't happen unless the forwards provide the right ball in the right place," he said. "Jono and Greg have done a fantastic job with them. So have guys like Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings. We missed those two when they went off to play for Leicester for a while, but when they came back they brought plenty with them."
When the Lions square up to the Wallabies 13 months from now, Sexton should find himself playing behind a distinctly useful forward pack drawn from the four corners of these islands: a British and Irish coalition bringing together the likes of Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Stephen Ferris and Sam Warburton would be quite something. First, there is the small matter of this evening's set-to at Twickenham.
"An Irish derby is always tough," said the outside-half. "An Irish derby with the European title at stake? That makes it doubly tough."
29 Caps for Ireland since his debut against Fiji in November 2009
325 Heineken Cup points scored for Leinster, including 11 in the 2009 final and 28 in 2011
764 Career points scored for Leinster, in 90 matches. Total includes 12 tries
2 Tries scored against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup final
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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