Johnny Sexton has long been a leader for both Leinster and Ireland but he is now entering new territory as captain of the national side.
Before this Six Nations, Sexton only captained Ireland on one occasion and that occurred recently – against Russia at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
When the debate surrounding who will be the official captain of Ireland in the post-Rory Best era waged on before this year’s Six Nations, one of the negatives associated with Sexton as a candidate was his ability to communicate with officials on the field as the 34-year-old can sometimes be considered to be aggressive or disrespectful.
However, sometimes it’s all about body language and this is a lesson Sexton has learned from the famous PRO14 clash between Munster and Leinster at Thomond Park during the 2018/19 campaign.
Former Munster player Frank Murphy was the referee that day and in what was an ill-tempered affair, which saw James Lowe sent off among other ‘spiky’ incidents, Sexton recalls that he didn’t portray the correct body language when addressing Murphy at key junctures in the game.
“One of the biggest games I learned last year was in the game in Thomond Park where Frank – I played with Frank and I’m friends with Frank – and he kept calling me over. And every time he called me over, the crowd would go absolutely crazy. And then a couple of times I did speak to him, I had my hands out or I was speaking over him and I looked aggressive.
“What I was saying was perfectly reasonable and acceptable for a captain to say but the way it was portrayed or the way things were taken was totally different so it’s learning those lessons, speaking to a few ex-captains and talking about that lesson and I got some good advice around that and hopefully I’ve been better since so, yeah, a good lesson learned.”
One of those ex-captains which Sexton has spoken to subsequently was Ireland and Munster legend Paul O’Connell. The Limerick native had a similar incident with French referee Romain Poite some years ago which Sexton can relate to.
“I spoke to Paulie and Paulie spoke to me about one time he was playing against the Ospreys and Romain Poite was the ref and he took his gumshield out and he had no teeth in and he spits through his teeth.
“Paulie looks angry at the best of times, even when he’s happy and he was just standing over Romain Poite. What he was saying was, again, probably perfectly acceptable but the way it looked or the way Romain felt was maybe not quite right. Everyone makes mistakes in their game or parts of their leadership and I’ve made plenty over the years but I’d like to think I’ve learned some good lessons.”
So how did Sexton enjoy his first week as captain? The out-half admits that there was a lot of new experiences but he also credits this to the change in the coaching staff as Andy Farrell and his staff generate their own special environment for the players to operate in.
“Yeah I enjoyed it, the build-up was different. I suppose the one thing for all of us is the build-up is so different. We have been so set in the build-up to international rugby over the last number of years with Joe and everything has changed and we are trying to do different things like we used to meet up four hours before the game and now we meet up two hours before. So everything was new for me, new with the captaincy and I found it busier at times but I enjoyed it.
“Like I said it is a huge honour and it is one that I don’t take lightly. I thought I was okay there was a few things that I would like to do differently in and around some of the decisions that went against but I enjoyed it.”
Sexton will lead Ireland out once again when they take on Wales in Round 2 of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations on Saturday [KO 2.15 pm].