Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton has admitted he gets ‘a huge amount’ from studying high-achieving players in rugby and other sports, learning about what makes them tick through analysis and documentaries.
That extends to one of his fiercest rivals on the pitch, England captain Owen Farrell. There is mutual admiration between the pair, particularly on the back of their involvement together with the British & Irish Lions.
Paying tribute to Farrell ahead of his 100th appearance for England against New Zealand this weekend, Sexton said: “He’s been an amazing player for England over the years and how good he is, you can see it when he’s not there, when he was missing.
“He’s that glue that keeps the team together. I’ve played with him and been in a dressing room with him where his leadership is outstanding.”
Both ferocious competitors, the pair are certainly cut from the same cloth in how they play, lead and continue to reach the highest standards as two of the best players in the world.
Owen’s father Andy, who has coached Sexton for a number of years as Ireland defence coach and now head coach, has described them as ‘very similar characters’ and ‘big students of the game’.
They developed a closer bond through touring with the Lions in both 2013 and 2017, although the sight of them clashing off the ball in Ireland-England and Leinster-Saracens games suggests the relationship cools when crossing the white line.
“We’ve had a few run-ins as well so it’s not as cosy as everyone would think!,” quipped Sexton. “But no, Owen’s a great competitor. Utmost respect for him and he’s a guy that I’ve looked at closely over the years.
“Lucky enough to have played with him and I’ve tried to take some of his game and put it into my game. It’s an amazing achievement and he’s a great ambassador for the England team. My words won’t do him justice, I don’t think.”
Always looking for that extra edge, Sexton enjoyed meeting up a few weeks ago with basketball star Steph Curry who trained at the IRFU High Performance Centre during a trip to Dublin in his off-season.
Nick Winkelman, the IRFU’s Head of Athletic Performance, facilitated some training time for Curry and his performance trainer Carl Bergstrom in September at Irish Rugby’s base in Blanchardstown.
Curry is fresh from winning his fourth NBA title and exchanged signed jerseys with Sexton, swapping his Golden State Warriors number 30 one for an Ireland shirt with the number 10 on the back.
Sexton is Ireland’s record points scorer – and seventh on Test rugby’s all-time list – so he relished the chance to meet a player regarded as the best shooter in NBA history, and was struck by how humble and eager to learn about rugby he was.
“The opportunity to meet someone like that was insane. I couldn’t get over how humble he was, how down to earth he was,” Sexton said of Curry, who also incorporated a rugby ball into some of his training drills on the indoor pitch.
“I was hoping to ask him a few questions about his routine and how he preps – but I couldn’t get any questions in because he was asking me about rugby and how to pass the ball!
“In basketball, he shoots with the same hand all the time and he couldn’t get over how we’ve to do it with our bad hand and kick with both feet.
“It was amazing that, with the stature he has in the game that he plays, to be such a good fella was great to see.”
Absorbing tips and tricks from other world-class athletes has helped Sexton become the player that he is, still striving to be the best in his field at 37 and gearing up for a huge 2023 with the Guinness Six Nations and Rugby World Cup to come.
Referring to some of the insightful documentaries he has learned from, he noted: “It’s a big part of, not staying ahead, but there’s so much transfer from sport to sport and if you learn so many small things from those documentaries. The more you can watch the better – you’ll get something out of it.”
The latest pretender to the number 10 throne is Munster’s Jack Crowley. The 22-year-old came off the bench to make his Ireland debut against Fiji last week, replacing the injured Joey Carbery during the second half of the 35-17 win.
Crowley is retained as the back-up out-half for Saturday’s Bank of Ireland Nations Series showdown with Australia. Sexton feels the Cork youngster has a bright future ahead of him in the international game.
“For Jack to come on so early on his debut and handle things really well, he’ll be delighted with himself. Within that, the coaches would have spoke to him about how to keep improving,” added the Ireland skipper.
“Like they always do, they’re still doing that with every player. Jack’s young and where he wants to take his career is totally up to him in terms of he’s got the talent, he’s got the brain, he’s got everything going. He just needs to go and fulfil it now.”