He may have 108 Ireland caps under his belt, but beginning an international week with 49 players in camp and two southern hemisphere sides to play at the weekend is a new experience for Jonathan Sexton.
Currently training at the IRFU High Performance Centre, the extended Ireland squad are gearing up for the Ireland ‘A’ team’s clash with the All Blacks XV on Friday, swiftly followed by the main course of Ireland against South Africa the following evening.
It is quite an exercise in logistics to get that many bodies out on the training pitch and ensure quality preparation for both the ‘A’ and senior teams, as the much-anticipated Bank of Ireland Nations Series gets ready for kick-off.
Like the summer tour when Ireland’s fringe players got game-time against the Māori All Blacks, it is a big collective effort and Sexton hopes they can reap the rewards from both fixtures at the RDS and the Aviva Stadium.
“The coaches did a good job,” he said of Tuesday’s well-populated training session. “I wasn’t envisaging how it was going to work, but they did it well in terms of we were almost rotating as teams.
“Almost four teams at the start into two. It was good, it was different. It’s a unique week. We had a unique experience in the summer and now we’ve got another one now with two matches going on. Big game Friday night and then a big game Saturday.
“So it’s good, it’s what we want. We don’t want anything to be the same because you get comfortable then and come the World Cup you’re not ready for anything changing. So, we’re testing ourselves and trying not to keep things too familiar.”
Following on from their historic series win in New Zealand, Andy Farrell’s men are back in the familiar surroundings of the Aviva Stadium, hoping to claim the scalp of the reigning Rugby World Cup champions like their predecessors did.
Ireland boast a proud record of defeating past Webb Ellis Cup holders between tournaments, with memorable victories over Australia (2002), England (2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007), South Africa (2009) and New Zealand (2016 and 2018).
Sexton was involved in those last three triumphs and as he enters the final year of his Test career, the 37-year-old says it still means so much to him to run out with the national team at Irish Rugby HQ.
Every time you get to play at home, in front of the Irish public and family and friends in the Aviva, they’re the most special days of your career.
“It’s something you never take lightly. Again, when you come towards the end (of your career), it’s even more special. You try and cherish it even more.
“But the nerves are still there, the excitement is still there. So it’s not that much different to how it usually is.”
The St. Mary’s College clubman got some decent match minutes into his legs with Leinster in recent weeks, including full games against both the Cell C Sharks and Munster.
He is looking forward to taking on South Africa for the first time since 2017, especially after missing out on last year’s British & Irish Lions tour. Of course, the sides’ Rugby World Cup pool game next year looms large on the horizon.
“I feel good. In the first two games of the season, you’re always expecting a couple of mistakes in a lot of parts of the game, and I definitely had them in the first couple of games.
“It’s important I learn from them, build on what was good and try to put it all together on Saturday. If we got a win on Saturday, it would be great. If we didn’t, we’d learn from it.
“We’re going to learn both ways, we’re going to learn about South Africa, see what it’s like to play against this type of team. We haven’t played against them in a few years. I think it’s what we need.
“They’re in our group obviously in the World Cup and we just need to make sure that we take learnings from it, win, lose or draw. But we’re going out there to try and win the game, don’t get me wrong.”
Sexton has been Ireland’s captain since the start of the Andy Farrell era in early 2020. His winning ratio as skipper is an impressive 78%, the highpoints so far coming this year with the Triple Crown and New Zealand tour success.
Always striving to improve as a player and a leader, he said: “I enjoy it (the captaincy). There is a lot of extra responsibility and extra meetings, making sure you’re on top of the leadership group, making sure you’re organising different things.
“If I didn’t have it, I’d miss it. At times you go, ‘do I need it?’, but yeah, I think I do. I’m enjoying it. It’s still a work in progress, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to be the perfect captain.
“There’s part of my leadership that I need to work on, and there’s parts that are good. It’s just about getting feedback and making sure you’re always striving to improve.”
The Dubliner, who has captained Leinster since 2018, admits he is fortunate to have a strong group of trusty lieutenants around him, a number of whom have captained their provinces or grown into leadership roles. He added:
I lean heavily on the guys around me. You work well as a team, there’s guys that have come out of themselves like Tadhg Furlong. He’s really come out of his shell over the last couple of years.
“He kind of got ‘put’ in the leadership group – I don’t think he wanted anything to do with it! – but he got put in there and he got forced into leading and he’s doing an amazing job.
“James Ryan has captained Ireland, Garry Ringrose has captained Leinster, Iain Henderson captain of Ulster, Pete (O’Mahony) captain of Munster, so it’s a good group. It makes my job much easier, we do it as a team.”