When he made his debut against Fiji at the RDS back in November 2009, Jonathan Sexton could never have envisaged that he would become an Ireland centurion almost 12 years later.
Having made his 99th appearance in a memorable Guinness Six Nations win over England at the Aviva Stadium back in March, Sexton is in line to reach the impressive milestone when Japan visit the same venue this Saturday in the Autumn Nations Series (kick-off 1pm).
Whereas a number of his current team-mates have been brought into national camp at a much earlier stage in their development, Sexton was 24 and already 49 games into his Leinster career when then-head coach Declan Kidney handed him his Ireland debut.
“I know it’s not really old, but compared to some other lads that get capped at 20, 21, I had to work a long time to get that one cap. I was unbelievably happy to get the one,” he admitted, speaking at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown.
“They’re the most special ones. I never in a million years thought I’d still be playing, but I think over the last few years I’ve just taken it year on year and see how I felt.
“In the back of my mind, you always had it. I was gutted to miss the French game last year because I knew that if I kept fit and kept my form, that I would have played my 100th against England.
Everything happens for a reason and hopefully getting your 100th cap in front of some people will be more special, I think.
“I’m trying to focus on the game. I don’t want to get drawn away from how important the game is and trying to get a performance early.
“We often haven’t hit the ground running and we need to make sure we can do that ahead of the Six Nations. Making sure we can hit the ground running in week one.”
In any man’s language, Sexton has achieved extraordinary longevity in a professional career that began with a first Leinster cap as a replacement against Border Reivers in January 2006.
While he would much prefer to leave it for others to define what has made him the player he is today, there is one characteristic that Sexton has no problem identifying with.
“The ability to bounce back is something that I’d like to say I’d be proud of. In my career I’ve felt like I’ve had a lot of brilliant moments. Winning trophies. All those things, all those special memories.
“I’ve also had a hell of a lot of low points as well, which have always driven me. If you want to be a good role model for kids looking in, don’t give up and always try to bounce back. That’s what I’d like to think people will see when they see me.”
Having sat out their Rugby World Cup defeat to the Brave Blossoms in Fukuroi two years ago and the visit of Jamie Joseph’s side in the summer, Saturday’s clash is set to mark Sexton’s first appearance against Japan.
Nonetheless, his experience of watching both of those games as a bystander offered him a firm indication of what to expect at Irish Rugby HQ this weekend.
“I remember being at the World Cup game. I remember watching them. I was on the pitch watching our lads warm up and I was drawn into watching the Japanese team warm up and how good they were.
“How good their skills were, even in the warm-up, just going at such a tempo. Everything was running smoothly and was very impressive.
“Then obviously in the game and throughout all that World Cup, they were outstanding. It was a big tournament for them in front of their home supporters.
“In the summer, having the summer off, I brought Luca, my son, to the Japanese game in the Aviva and the same again. They played some outstanding rugby. They are a team to be reckoned with.
We obviously learnt a hard lesson at the World Cup and they are a team that are just unbelievably well coached. That’s what I see when I look at Japan.
“You can tell how well drilled they are and obviously their coaches come with big reputations from what they did with the Highlanders. I can’t say enough about them.
“We’ll 100% give them the respect that they deserve and we’re preparing as well as we prepared for anyone.”
The Autumn Nations Series – Tests against New Zealand and Argentina will follow on November 13 and 21 November – will also see Sexton playing in front of a home international crowd for the first time since February 2020.
A limited number of spectators were permitted to attend the summer encounters with Japan and the USA, with a sidelined Sexton watching on from the stands.
He did, however, play in front of 19,419 fans at the Aviva Stadium for Leinster’s United Rugby Championship bow against Vodacom Bulls in September. He also witnessed first-hand the return of Leinster supporters to the RDS in recent weeks.
The numbers passing through the turnstiles are expected to be significantly ramped up on Saturday and it makes Sexton all the more eager to get going in the autumn international window.
“Any time you play for Ireland is special, but we’ve missed having the support. It’s only when you have them back that you realise how much you miss them,” he noted.
We kind of got used to it a little bit, through the last 18 months. It has been brilliant having them back. The difference it made with Leinster and now to come into the Aviva Stadium, mostly full hopefully, just to have the support back is fantastic.
“There’s a lot of guys that haven’t played for Ireland in front of a crowd, you’ve got to remember. It’s going to be a very special day for them.”