This season could be the last in the playing career of Johnny Sexton, whose failure to make the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa is a blow he doesn’t think he’ll overcome.
Leinster’s captain previously toured under Warren Gatland in both 2013 and 2017, playing in six Tests from a possible six and starting in five of those.
But he was denied a Lions three-peat this summer after Gatland opted for Dan Biggar, Finn Russell and Owen Farrell as his fly-half options, leaving the grizzled veteran behind.
It’s not a decision that was easily received by Sexton, who heads into his 2021/22 campaign with Leinster having yet to “get over” the omission from his last Lions opportunity.
“I’ve had lots of setbacks in my career and now it’s up to me to bounce back this season. Not that I’m over it. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it but I’ve come to terms with it. I accepted it a long time ago that it wasn’t going to be,” Sexton said at a MACE press event.
“It’s a long time ago now since I wasn’t picked, the emotions have obviously changed a little bit. When you don’t get picked it’s a massive disappointment. But, look, they went a certain way and I wasn’t a part of their plans. It was tough but that’s life. I’ve just got to try and bounce back now.”
Northampton Saints star Biggar ultimately went on to start all three Tests as the Lions lost their South Africa series 2-1, with Scotland ’s Russell impressing as an injury replacement later on.
Sexton, 36, didn’t even receive the call when Russell initially suffered an Achilles injury that threatened to end his tour, with England prospect Marcus Smith instead receiving that nod.
There were concerns that a head injury suffered during Leinster’s European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final win over Exeter Chiefs in April would rule Sexton out of Lions contention.
Nonetheless, the Ireland talisman was “gutted” he would miss out on a summer series against the reigning world champions: “At the time I was like a little bit kind of going ‘wow’…I’ve just played four games in the Six Nations.
“Yeah, I’d picked up a knock. When you are holding a guy in the tackle and you get a knee in the side of the head there’s nothing you can do or nothing that you can control.
“Obviously, it was gutting to hear that because I’d worked so hard before and during the Six Nations to stay fit.
“I thought I’d proved that by playing three 80 minutes in a row by the end in consecutive weeks that that maybe would be put to bed. But they went a certain way, I don’t know if that was something that he just said to the media. They went a different way and I have just have to move on and accept it."
The softly spoken operator is typically mature about the situation looking back, even if he’s suggested being overlooked could leave a permanent mark.
It would be an understatement to say Sexton can be proud of a decorated career that’s seen him win four Champions Cups, six Pro14 titles and three Six Nations championships (including one Grand Slam).
Like every great, the 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year has to hang up his boots sometime, however, and the coming campaign could prove to be Sexton’s final swan song.
“I’ll be honest, over the summer when you get a lot of free time and you don’t have games to focus on and you do have a lot of time to think, I got drawn into thinking ‘Is this my last (season)?’ And I’m trying to get away from that,” he added.
“I’m trying to just focus on the moment, focus on Harlequins (pre-season game) next week, focus on the start of the season and try not to think about what’s next April or May, because ultimately at this age, that’s the time you make these decisions.
“But rugby is such a tough game, if you are planning too far ahead even as a 23 or 24-year-old, one injury in training or in a match can finish you. So I’m trying to focus on the here and now and we’ll make those decisions later on in the year.”
Sexton debuted for Leinster some 15 years ago, and he’ll become only the seventh player to win 100 caps for Ireland the next time he takes to the field in national team colours.
It’s thanks to his contributions that Ireland didn’t suffer following Ronan O’Gara’s move towards retirement, and now the nation is scrambling to find another heir for its No. 10 jersey.
Both club and country will cherish Sexton’s talents while they have them, however, whether that be for just one more season or—as many fans will hope—for slightly longer.
His mournful comments regarding the Lions omission hint at a damaged ego, but Leinster and Ireland each stand to benefit as a newly invigorated Sexton knuckles down for the challenges to come.
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