Andrew Conway believes Johnny Sexton is already one of rugby's best ever players
"At the moment, he is definitely up there."
To hear Andrew Conway speak about Johnny Sexton tells you how highly the Leinster star is regarded by his fellow professionals.
At this stage, Ireland's Test rugby cart is firmly hitched to Johnny Sexton. Rugby supporters on this island, and further afield, all know how important the Leinster outhalf is to Ireland's chances.
The summer tour to New Zealand was a microcosm of Sexton's experiences with Ireland, especially since Ronan O'Gara hung up his boots, in 2013. Ireland lost Sexton after 30 minutes in their First Test defeat to the All Blacks. The Ireland captain was then cleared to play in the final two Tests and was imperious in both, as Ireland notched up an historic series victory.
Conway was watching that series on his summer break, after injury ruled him out of the summer tour. Not quite ready to rock for next weekend's first weekend of the United Rugby Championship season, the Munster winger will be hoping to get enough game-time under his belt to return to the Ireland squad for their November matches.
During a day with the media for the URC launch, earlier this week, we posed Conway with a question about who he would call the greatest rugby player of all time.
"There's a few people," Conway responded, after chewing it over for a while. "Johnny Sexton, in my opinion, is up there."
Then, Conway launched straight into his case for Sexton to be considered up there with the all-time greats of rugby:
"He's got four European Cups, a Grand Slam, four [Six Nations] championships, six URC [league] titles, Lions tours, he's now beaten New Zealand multiple [five] times, he's got over 100 caps.
"If you look at the impact that Johnny has on rugby matches when he's playing, versus when he's not playing, it's crazy. It's really, really crazy. And the fella is 37, so that plays its' part - to be still going at this age plays a massive part into answering that question.
"He still wants more, as well. I've known Johnny a long time, back to when I was playing at Leinster. He's mellowed out definitely, in a good way. Him being the captain of the national team has been brilliant for him. It has almost, in a small way, forced him to chill out that small bit, which has been good, particularly for everyone around him!
"And it's been good for himself. He's not as highly strung. He hasn't lost that drive or desire. You'd thing that if he loses a bit of that, is he going to lose his edge, too. But he hasn't.
"I know that he's announced he's retiring after the World Cup, so he obviously has a big 12, 15 months ahead. If we can do what we are planning to do what we are driving towards, I don't think that question would be in doubt. But, at the moment, he is definitely up there."
The likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw would both have strong claims to the title of best players of the modern, professional era, and perhaps of all-time, while Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll are both highly regarded by current and past pros. Sexton is lauded in all rugby nations as a influential player, but he would definitely need a World Cup win to be in the conversation, for most supporters. That is exactly what Andy Farrell's Ireland are targeting at next year's World Cup, in France.
Alex Ferguson praise for Johnny Sexton
Last September, as he enjoyed some time away from 2021/22 preparations after the Lions Tour to South Africa, Johnny Sexton headed along to Old Trafford to watch Manchester United take on Newcastle.
A life-long United supporter, Sexton got to see Cristiano Ronaldo score a brace in a 4-1 win that, albeit for a short period, put United top of the Premier League table. As if Sexton's mood was not high enough, he had the opportunity to meet former United boss, Alex Ferguson.
The Leinster and Ireland star knows all about Ferguson's managerial deeds with United, but he was blown away that the Scot knew all about him, too. Ferguson complimented Sexton on his career, to date, and his winning mentality.
When our reporter, Alex Roberts, told Conway that story, the winger was stunned to know how Ferguson was well up on his rugby, and on his Johnny Sexton knowledge.
"He's a massive United fan," says Andrew Conway. "I didn't know that Ferguson had said that to him but it doesn't get much better than that. It doesn't get much bigger of a compliment than to hear something like that from Alex Ferguson, to recognise you're a winner. That's not just saying you're a great player. It's saying you've a certain type of attitude and spirit. There's not that many guys out there that Ferguson would know of, let alone coming up to Johnny to lead their conversation that way."
As for his own injury comeback, Andrew Conway says he is almost ready for the hard yards back on the pitch after a 'decent without being crazy' operation to sort out a troublesome knee.
"I'm starting to run now," he says, "which is the big first step. Hopefully it speeds up... the main thing is getting the knee right. The body is the body and allows you what it wants to do, so you've got to respect it."
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