Johnny Sexton is Irish rugby’s greatest player of all time
A legacy like no other.
As the sun begins to set on Johnny Sexton’s glittering career, there is little one can do but stand back and admire the unparalleled success achieved by the man who must now be considered this island’s greatest ever rugby player.
It is a career which has packed a lifetime’s worth of iconic moments into just one immaculate 17-year period, from that drop goal in Paris, to that second half display in Cardiff, Sexton has produced more than any other to have come before him.
No matter the jersey, whether it be the blue of Leinster, or briefly the blue of Racing Metro (let’s make a collective effort to pretend that never happened), the green of Ireland or the red of the Lions, Sexton has delivered time and time again, in the moments that mattered most.
The competition to Johnny Sexton's throne
The former St. Mary’s College pupil has come a long way from that infamous May day in 2009, in which the mantle of Ireland’s best was wrestled not just from Munster by Leinster, but from ROG by Sexton too.
Looming over the man who had just drop-kicked Ireland to incredulous Grand Slam glory a matter of months before, the Leinster fly half produced one of Irish sport’s most iconic images, and a moment which signified the mentality of a man who would drive Irish rugby on to previously unfathomable heights.
Having firmly laid to rest the tiresome debate of who was Ireland’s greatest fly half, Sexton’s magnetic relationship with collecting silverware has seen him ascend to the debate of whether or not he is Ireland’s greatest player.
The main opposition is of course his former Leinster and Ireland teammate, Brian O’Driscoll. However, having far surpassed his predecessor’s trophy haul and also managing to claim the one crowning piece of individual glory which always eluded O’Driscoll – the World Rugby Player of the Year award – Sexton now sits atop the throne of Irish rugby.
“They call him God, but I reckon he’s a better player than that”, was how Stuart Barnes famously christened O’Driscoll, so to have a player in the form of Sexton best nearly every record set by the centre in fewer tests, just serves to highlight the extent of Sexton’s brilliance which we have been so fortunate to witness.
The ultimate big-game player
In the blue of Leinster, the fly half followed in the colossus footsteps of the prodigious Felipe Contepomi. The mercurial Argentine was adored by the RDS faithful, but upon his departure for the Cote D’azur, his absence was barely felt, as Sexton drove the 2009 Heineken Cup champions onto consecutive 2011 and 2012 triumphs.
That 2011 final in particular is one of not just Irish rugby’s, but Irish sport’s most breath-taking performances, as Sexton led an Istanbul-esque revival from 22-6 down, to see Leinster emerge victorious.
In a stadium synonymous with Irish rugby folklore – from Munster’s emotional European triumphs to Rog’s aforementioned ending of 61 years of Irish heartbreak - few could think of a better backdrop to the masterful second half display delivered by Sexton that day. 16 points down at the break, the fly half found the confidence and bravery deep within the bowels of the Principality Stadium to provide a rousing battle cry to his Leinster teammates.
What transpired in that second half was all the more mesmerising, as Sexton went on to score all of Leinster’s points on the day, barring a sole Nathan Hines’ try. Speaking in the aftermath of his side’s jubilant celebrations, Brian O’Driscoll recounted his fly half’s impassioned sermon, saying that “He speaks when the time needs it but I think he really stood up to the plate this time around and was there to be a senior player as a ten. You need him to be a senior player and a leader and he was very much that today”.
The less said about Sexton’s sojourn to the courtly suburbs of Paris the better, a two-year period which saw Leinster flounder in their favourite son’s absence. In his stint at the prosperous Parisian club, the fly half led Racing to back-to-back play-off appearances in the Top 14, before losing out to the eventual winners in Toulon and Stade Francais on both occasions.
Sexton’s departure disrupted what would have likely been a European rugby dynasty at Leinster, with the ensuing fallow period seeing the province fall in the knockout stages to the Galactico-inspired Toulon side who achieved the incredible feat of claiming three consecutive European Cups.
Thankfully Sexton and the IRFU eventually reached a détente of sorts, which saw the fly half return to these shores ahead of the 2015/16 season. From that moment onwards, Sexton and Leinster have been a near-unstoppable force domestically, claiming a record four consecutive league titles whilst also adding a fourth European star to their jersey in the process.
Answering Ireland's Call:
It is not just his performances in the blue of Leinster though which have seen Sexton scale to the apex of the sport, but also the 113 caps in the green of Ireland which the former World Player of the year has accumulated.
The driving force behind Ireland’s most trophy-laden era in the history of the sport, Sexton has played a pivotal role in securing Ireland a record four Six Nations titles over the past decade, with two of these wins also culminating in the consecrated form of Grand Slams.
Similarly to his Leinster career, there are a litany of seminal moments to choose from when attempting to convey the sheer brilliance of Ireland’s record points scorer. However, one’s mind struggles to look past the opening weekend of the 2018 Six Nations championship, which saw Sexton slot an implausible 45 metre drop goal in the final play of the game, in a moment which silenced a stunned Stade de France.
But like all great sportsmen, Sexton’s appetite to compete has not waned with age, but rather developed to such an extent that it appears to be the insatiable force which still drives him in the lead up to his 38th birthday.
Case in point being last summer’s historic series win over the All Blacks, in which Sexton captained Andy Farrell’s side to one of Irish sport’s standout achievements. It was little more than six years ago that Ireland had never beaten rugby’s most dominant nation, but here we stand in 2023 with four test wins, all of which Sexton started, as Ireland themselves now stand on the precipice of their own era of global rugby domination.
As the Aviva Stadium saluted its treasured orchestrator one final time on Saturday evening, there was no way more becoming of Sexton than to do so with a Grand Slam in tow, having slain the old enemy one final time.
The Leinster fly half’s trophy cabinet is now full to the brim. However, room can surely be made for the most coveted of them all, with Sexton set to lead his country to this autumn’s World Cup in search of breaking the infamous quarter final hoodoo.
Should the two-time slam winner and his Ireland team be successful in their quest for the Webb Ellis Cup, then Ireland’s greatest rugby player will henceforth be recognised as its’ greatest ever sportsperson.
A fitting ending to what has been a fairy tale career. From Dublin, to Chicago to Wellington and everywhere in between, Sexton has steered both club and country from perennial underachievers to the standard bearers- and for this, he will never be forgotten.
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