Friday, March 1, 2024

Irish icon Sexton plays down Six Nations final bow

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Dublin (AFP) – Johnny Sexton says even though Saturday’s Six Nations match at home to England will be his last in the tournament and could end in fairytale fashion with the Grand Slam, it does not feel as momentous as winning his 100th cap.

The 37-year-old talismanic fly-half should sign off as the all-time tournament record points scorer — he is tied on 557 with his predecessor as Irish playmaker Ronan O’Gara — in what will be his 60th Six Nations match.

His first came as a replacement against France in 2010 with his maiden start against England later in the tournament.

However, the 2018 World Player of the Year sees Saturday’s game as a cup final, with the final curtain for his stellar Test career to come later this year at the World Cup.

“I don’t feel it as special,” he said at a press conference at the Irish team training centre on Wednesday.

“Your 100th cap or something like that, you do feel that sense of occasion.

“This is the last Six Nations game but there’s so much ahead, please God, if I stay lucky and avoid injuries.

“There’s hopefully a World Cup, so I’m trying to get away from the fact that it’s this big last thing.

“It’s just a cup final.”

Sexton, who has 112 Ireland caps, says of course there are strong emotions swirling around.

“Yeah, in the background definitely,” he said.

“It’s special, of course, I’d never be able to live with myself if you don’t turn up and play well so that’s the focus.

“You take the emotion out of it, it’s going to be emotional anyway.

“You’re playing England at home with something on the line, so it’s always what you’ve wanted to do and where you wanted to be.”

Sexton says only his son Luca — the eldest of his three children — is aware of the significance of Saturday’s match.

“Look, it goes over the kids’ heads, most of it,” he said smiling.

“They do kinda come out with some mad stuff the odd time.

“Luca is at the age now where he understands what’s going on and he’s looking forward to wanting to come on the pitch at the end of the game.

“He knows that he only comes on if we win.

“So they’re the things you try to make happen, you try to give your family special moments, the supporters, the Irish people.”

‘Imagine this happening’

His fellow veteran Peter O’Mahony credited Sexton earlier on Wednesday as “having changed rugby for the better”.

“I’ve played with Pete since the start really,” said Sexton.

“I don’t think it’s true but yeah, look, when someone says something nice, it is nice.”

Sexton has the chance to become the first Irish captain to achieve the Grand Slam at Lansdowne Road — the previous three have come in Belfast (1948), Cardiff (2009) and Twickenham (2018).

Johnny Sexton (L) hopes to skipper Ireland to their fourth Grand Slam in Dublin © Glyn KIRK / AFP

“That’s the bit that we spoke about from the start, it’s never been done at home,” he said.

“It’s something that we identified very early and said, ‘Imagine this happening, imagine having a shot at it at home in front of your family, friends,’ and now it’s a big occasion.

“It’s about dealing with that, embracing it and getting a good performance out there that warrants putting us in a position to win the game.”

Sexton, whose brother Mark may also be celebrating a Grand Slam come Sunday as an assistant coach of the Ireland Under-20s, puts down his longevity to two ingredients.

“I’d say you’d get a better answer out of somebody else,” he said.

“For me, luck, being able to, touch wood, be able to avoid those big injuries that you see cruelly happen to some players.

“Being able to bounce back from adversity, maybe.

“I’ve had plenty of bad days, plenty of criticism, scrutiny and just being able to bounce back from those bad moments.

“Those two things.”

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