As he prepares to join him on the exclusive list of international centurions, Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell has sung the praises of captain Jonathan Sexton.
As it stands, he is one of only six players to accumulate a century or more of Ireland caps.
That is set to change today, however, with Sexton named at out-half for the visit of Japan to the Aviva Stadium for the Autumn Nations Series opener (kick-off 1pm).
O’Connell played alongside the Dubliner for a large chunk of his 99 appearances to date, which makes him as good a person as any to talk about the dynamic he brings to the team.
“I think winning makes him want to win more. Winning doesn’t take the edge off. He moves on from winning very quickly,” O’Connell said of Sexton, speaking at the Captain’s Run.
“Sometimes if we win badly, he almost treats it like a loss. If we don’t play well, don’t perform well, if we don’t execute what we want to do. I think that’s a big thing.
“I compare him to a Henry Shefflin or a Roy Keane, winning doesn’t take the edge off him. They just want more.
“That’s the biggest thing he’s brought to Irish Rugby and Leinster Rugby. I think that’s one of the big reasons that he’s had such a big influence on the teams he’s been involved in.
Some guys have big lofty goals and when they achieve them they take their foot off the gas or they allow their teams to take their foot off the gas.
“When I played, he was a great guy to have as a captain on the team because he didn’t wait for other people to lead or he didn’t look for the captain to always be on top of people.
“He just drove the team on relentlessly himself. The way he reacts to winning is the big thing for me.”
Also amongst the select group to have represented Ireland on at least 100 occasions are former international stars Brian O’Driscoll (133), Ronan O’Gara (128), Rory Best (124) and John Hayes (105), as well as an active player in Cian Healy (109), who is on the bench this afternoon.
There are a lot of factors behind the longevity of players like Sexton and Healy but, from O’Connell’s point of view, maintaining a strong appetite is principle amongst them.
“You have to love it. You have to love training. You have to love being part of the team and trying to make the team better. You’ve got to love the days that some other guys don’t love sometimes.
“Those tough away games with your province when you need to dig out a bit of form or the work you do when you’re injured to make sure you can come back at 75% of where you were and not 50% of where you were.
“In how you prepare and how you train, you probably build trust with the coaches that they want to select you. They feel you’re an important part of the team.
“A lot of the guys that have got to 100 caps, I think they’re an important part of the team as players, but they’re probably an important part of the team in terms of their leadership and their attitude.
“In terms of how they bring the team forward as well. I think loving it and loving training, loving preparing, loving being part of the group, is one of the things that probably allows you to be consistent over time. Allows you to keep putting your hand up for selection.”
While O’Connell faced 18 different nations over the course of his 13-year international career, today’s opponents Japan were not one of them.
Additionally, he was not yet part of the senior coaching set-up when the Brave Blossoms defeated Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, meaning his first official involvement against the Japanese was the game in Dublin at the beginning of July.
However, O’Connell has kept a close eye on their progress under Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown either side of that summer Test, which Ireland won 39-31, and is acutely aware of the challenge that awaits them.
“They’re an excellently coached team. They’re not over-coached to the point where they have a little bit of paralysis. They still have this attitude to go and play,” acknowledged the Limerick man.
“They seem to be backed to chase the unpredictable. Chase offloads and take chances. Then they have incredible structure as well. We would have watched a good bit of the Highlanders in Super Rugby where Tony Brown was coaching.
“You were getting a lot of these highly-scripted plays and they’re brilliant to watch as well. They have a brilliant balance that way. James Moore is really experienced now as a lineout caller, so they get brilliant ball off the lineout.
“We struggled to get after them there during the summer. They scored a maul try against us during the summer.
Probably a big part of Australia getting a result against them (two weeks ago) was how Australia managed to stop that part of their game.
“Japan have great balance to their team, excellent coaching and they work very, very hard. That’s something we pride ourselves on as well so when we see it in another team, we recognise it.
“They work incredibly hard to be able to attack. They work incredibly hard to be able to defend well, so the boys are under no illusions as to how hard it’s going to be.”