ICON Legends – Johnny Sexton – An Irish rugby hero

ICON Legends Tuesday October 24, 2023 By: Harry Howes

Irish rugby won’t quite be the same following the news that legendary fly-half Johnny Sexton is hanging up his boots.

The former captain helped his side to four Six Nations Wins, two Grand Slams and three Triple Crowns in a glittering career that saw him crowned the 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year.

Sexton scored an incredible 1,113 international points, the fourth-highest in history. He’s in rich company, with only Dan Carter, Owen Farrell and Jonny Wilkinson ahead of him in the all-time rankings.

Following a stellar career with Leinster, Racing 92, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, we’ve taken a look back at the many highs (and lows) of Sexton’s rugby journey.

World Cup heartbreak

As Sexton clapped the travelling fans in his final match for his country, there wouldn’t have been a dry eye back home in Ireland. The fly-half was unable to keep it together as TV cameras caught his son encouragingly saying “You’re still the best, dad.”

He is undoubtedly Ireland’s greatest ever player and a World Cup win this summer would have been the icing on the cake, possibly cementing his place as the best the sport has ever seen.

Despite a trophy-laden career, Sexton was never able to add the Webb Ellis Cup to his impressive collection. Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals and that continued in France as they suffered a 28-24 defeat to New Zealand in the final eight.

The tournament wasn’t all bad for Sexton. Their pool stage triumph over Tonga saw him become Ireland’s highest points scorer of all time, while their 82-8 win against Romania was their biggest ever World Cup win.

Yet those records will do little to soften the blow of never being able to claim rugby’s greatest honour in what was possibly Ireland’s biggest opportunity in years.

Ireland national team sing the national anthem during the Rugby World Cup

Rugby Hospitality

An Irish idol

While Sexton’s medal collection has one notable omission, it does little to taint an incredible legacy in the green of Ireland. The 38-year-old spent 14 years giving his all for his home country, captaining them for the final four years of his career.

He made his debut way back in 2009 and was an instant hero as he scored 16 points, kicking seven from seven and winning man of the match in blistering conditions against Fiji.

He then followed that up against South Africa, where a broken hand didn’t stop him from scoring all 15 points in a 15-10 win.

A long-winded rivalry with England was spawned in the 2011 Six Nations as he scored 14 points to stop them from winning a Grand Slam. The first of Sexton’s four Six Nations championships came in 2014 as he finished as the joint-highest try scorer, before Ireland repeated the feat the following year.

Ireland won their third ever Grand Slam in the 2018 Six Nations but that dream almost fell apart in the first game. They were trailing away at France but Sexton stepped up to save the day, scoring a crucial drop goal in the 83rd minute after 41 phases to win the game 15-13.

Sexton was imperious throughout the tournament, scoring 44 points across the five games on his way to being nominated for player of the tournament. And it wasn’t just in the Six Nations that he excelled as he continued an impressive 2018 by helping Ireland secure their first series win in Australia since 1979.

He finished that season undefeated as a starter for Ireland and became just the second ever Irishman to be crowned World Rugby Player of the Year.

Sexton enjoyed a successful final few years captaning his nation and last summer he led them to a Test series win in New Zealand. That victory saw Ireland become the first touring side to defeat the All Blacks in their own backyard since 1994.

And in Sexton’s final ever Six Nations game against England, Sexton captained Ireand to their fourth (and his second) Grand Slam.

Heineken Cup hero

Away from the international stage, Sexton has also enjoyed a remarkable domestic career, most notably for hometown club Leinster. Apart from a brief two-year spell at Racing 92 in France, Sexton spent his entire career at Leinster and helped them to four European Cups, six league titles, one European Challenge Cup and two Irish Shields.

Sexton’s first Heineken Cup triumph came in 2009, where a stunning drop goal from the halfway line helped Leinster to their first ever European Cup. He scored 11 points as his side won 19-16 against Leicester Tigers.

Two years later, Leinster’s name was on the trophy again after Sexton inspired them to one of rugby’s greatest ever comebacks. They trailed 22-6 at half-time but two tries and 28 points from Sexton saw them claim a remarkable 33-22 win. Sexton won man of the match and his haul was the second-highest points tally ever recorded in a Heineken Cup match.

Leinster secured a second consecutive Heineken Cup a year later – their third in four years – and Sexton scored 15 points in the 42-14 win over Irish rivals Ulster, which was the biggest ever winning margin in a final.

Following Sexton’s return from France, he became Leinster captain in 2018 and led them to a fourth European Cup, beating old side Racing 92 in the final, before they claimed four consecutive league titles to cement their place as one of Europe’s greatest sides.

Love him or loathe him, Sexton has had a phenomenal career and as he settles down to enjoy a well-deserved retirement, he’ll rightly be remembered as one of the best to ever do it.

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