The Rugby’s On - Episode 9Jan 25
Brian O'Driscoll meets Johnny Sexton - Veteran fly-half on Leinster's quest for a fifth star, Ronan O'Gara reunion and retirement
Brian O'Driscoll catches up with his former teammate Johnny Sexton as the Leinster captain looks to lead his side to a record-equalling fifth Heineken Cup crown
Johnny Sexton has always been the man for the big occasion.
“I’d rather take a kick at goal in front of 80,000 people than tee-off in front of six!”
It’s 12 days until the Heineken Cup final, but Sexton has taken a break from preparations to join his former Leinster teammate Brian O’Driscoll on the golf course.
In a candid chat between two friends that conquered Europe together, Sexton touches on a range of subjects, from his legacy and retirement, to this weekend’s final and a reunion with his former Munster nemesis, Ronan O’Gara.
Watch the full interview in the build up to Leinster vs La Rochelle on Saturday 28 May, from 4pm on BT Sport 2HD.
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Sexton was Leinster fly-half for all four of their European titles in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2018, but defeat by Saracens at St James’s Park in 2019 had left him doubting whether he would earn another chance to match Toulouse's five-star haul.
Now, weeks shy of his 37th birthday, Sexton is one game away from Heineken Cup winners’ medal number five.
At the same age, O’Driscoll had decided to call time on his own illustrious career, so what’s driving Sexton on to new and greater heights and, ahead of his sixth European Cup final, how does this one compare to his first?
How to watch the Heineken Cup final
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"It’s very similar, the nerves are there already," said Sexton.
"The fact that we lost the last one, you can't help but think what we could have done better.
"We probably didn’t get the build up right, we had three weeks without a game and we’ve learned our lesson from that.
"We were so fit running around but when it came to the Saracens game the contacts killed us."
Leinster would have become the first team to win the competition five times with victory over Saracens, but that summit would be reached two years later as Toulouse beat La Rochelle to win their first crown for 11 years.
"We had a chance to get there before Toulouse but they beat us to it.
"That’s what hurt the most about that 2019 final, we had the chance to put Leinster in their own bracket."
The hunt for five stars
Sexton has been a mainstay in Leinster’s golden era, but he insists he owes his longevity to those around him.
Leinster have one of the best player production lines in world rugby and a coaching team in Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster who are polishing those prospects into diamonds.
Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Caelen Doris and Hugo Keenan have all emerged in recent years to provide the fuel for Leinster's 'drive for five'.
"The desire to get to five is huge. We’ve spoken about it from day one with Stuart Lancaster," said Sexton.
"The day Stuart came in and talked about five we all looked each other and said ‘has he seen us play lately?’
"We had just lost to Connacht in the Pro14 final and I’d say we were at an all-time low at the start of the next season.
"The job him and Leo [Cullen] have done over the last few years has been great, to get to another final and to be going for five in a row in the United Rugby Championship is a testament to them.
"It’s an amazing environment to be a part of.
"When you’re in the latter stages of your career, if things weren’t as enjoyable and the people weren’t as good, I’d walk away 100 per cent but it’s too good!
"They’re all so competitive and ambitious, I’d say I love these lads now I love as much as the generation before."
Leinster's Marseille showdown with La Rochelle is a prospect made all the more mouth-watering by the fact they are coached by Sexton's one-time fly-half rival and adversary Ronan O’Gara.
Their rivalry for Ireland's number 10 jersey between 2009 and 2011 was made more bitter by their conflicting allegiances at club level, with O'Gara the quintessential Munster-man.
Tension between the two boiled over in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final between Munster and Leinster at Croke Park as Sexton mocked O'Gara in celebration of Gordon D'Arcy's try, a moment he later apologised for.
But the pair went on to forge an unliekly friendship during Sexton’s time at Racing where O’Gara was cutting his teeth as a coach.
Despite the history, it’s a sub-plot the Leinster man is keen to play down as he prepares to do battle with an O'Gara team once again.
"La Rochelle had never reached a final before and now they’re on for three in a row, which is a phenomenal achievement.
"Rog has done a fantastic job there, but he’s not playing… so I don’t know why it’s being made me against him – but I’m sure something will be made of it.
"I still stay in contact with him, not as much as we used to because he’s so busy.
"He’s been to three clubs now as a coach and he’s always been successful.
While the Leinster star has already confirmed that he will hang up his boots after the conclusion of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, he refused to rule out a dramatic U-turn.
"I always had this dream after the last World Cup to get to another one because I feel like we’ve got unfinished business," he said.
"But the body still feels good, so never say never! We’ll take it season by season."
Whatever he decides to do beyond Saturday is elemental at this stage with all his focus on putting this Leinster vintage on the pantheon of Europe's great sides.
"If we win this weekend it will be up their with the team that went back-to-back," he said.
"You’ve got to be a special team to go back-to-back, and we won three in four years, so I wouldn’t put us in that bracket yet.
"If we have the dream season: win in Europe and put the fifth star on the jersey and we went five in a row in the URC then you have to at least be talked about in that bracket.
"Getting that fifth star will at least put us in that conversation!"