Will Johnny Sexton break Ireland World Cup hoodoo?

A reliable flyhalf is one of the most important recipes for a successful World Cup campaign, especially in tight games where tries are rarer than rain in the Sahara.

That’s when an efficient and decisive No 10 steps up and takes the game by the scruff of its neck.

During the 1995 World Cup on home soil, it was Joel Stransky’s last-gasp drop goal that sealed South Africa’s first title in the quadrennial rugby extravaganza.

Then there was Jonny Wilkinson, the left-footer whose right foot won England their first and only World Cup to date, as the star netted a drop goal in the 100th minute of a fiercely contested encounter with hosts Australia.

All Black great Dan Carter was pivotal when his country won the tournament in 2015, scoring 19 points in the final and a total of 23 conversions throughout the showpiece.

Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton on the run against South Africa in their epic World Cup encounter at Stade de France on 23 September 2023. (Photo: Lionel Hahn / Getty Images)

The “final before the final” of the ongoing 2023 World Cup – in which top-ranked Ireland edged defending champions South Africa 13-8 in Paris – showed the difference in having a quality kicker in a game of such fine margins.

While the boot of the experienced Irish skipper Johnny Sexton played a pivotal part in Ireland’s famous victory, the Springbok kickers could not quite nail down their accuracy, dropping crucial points from the tee.

There are so many different layers to Johnny. But there is a really good soul there.

No 10 Manie Libbok came in for particularly heavy criticism after missing two of his kicks. However, Sexton was quick to douse the scrutiny of Libbok, pointing out that the latter set up the try that Cheslin Kolbe scored for the Boks during that tight tussle between the heavyweights.  

“He’s a handful with the ball and he has an array of tricks … Every kicker goes through a stage in their career. I had a similar one in the 2011 Rugby World Cup,” the 38-year-old Irish skipper said after the win.

“It’s tough. But you get stronger off the back of that and when you do come out of the other side, you indeed become a better kicker … He’s an outstanding player and gives them a different dimension.”

ireland boks

Johnny Sexton shouts instructions during Ireland’s World Cup match against Tonga at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes on 16 September 2023. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

In the wake of giants

Sexton himself has been the recipient of similar praise, from another great Irish flyhalf, Ronan O’Gara.

As O’Gara’s career crept towards its twilight, Sexton was waiting on the wings to permanently snatch the No 10 shirt from his compatriot. He would finally own it when his rival retired in 2013.

Sexton and O’Gara often clashed on opposite sides of the field as well. While O’Gara donned the colours of Munster, Sexton fought in the colours of bitter domestic adversaries Leinster.

He would say that’s his job, to kick goals and score tries every now and again. But that doesn’t make him.

Despite their fiery clashes for club and country over the years, O’Gara recently said of Sexton: “There are so many different layers to Johnny. But there is a really good soul there.”

Sexton, who was named World Rugby men’s player of the year in 2018, recently surpassed O’Gara’s 1,083 points for the Irish, becoming his country’s all-time-best points scorer as Ireland breezed 59-16 past Tonga in their second World Cup game.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023

The talisman, in typical fashion, snapped the record with a combination of points from the boot before finishing off a well-worked team try.

“He deserved to have it like that, didn’t he?” said coach Andy Farrell of Sexton’s feat. “He would say that’s his job, to kick goals and score tries every now and again. But that doesn’t make him. What makes him is how he leads his men every single weekend.”

The irony is that after Ireland’s seventh instance of tripping at the World Cup quarterfinal stage, at the 2019 showpiece, the 34-year-old Sexton believed his time with the national team was over.

He felt the new technical team would look to build a young team and discard tired legs such as his. However, when Farrell ascended to the hot seat, he still wanted Sexton around, making the veteran the team’s permanent skipper following the retirement of hooker Rory Best in 2019.

In a 2023 World Cup that includes stellar No 10s such as Richie Mo’unga, Finn Russell, Owen Farrell and George Ford, 38-year-old Sexton still stands out as the ace.

Over the years he has done little to dispel his reputation as a mosquito constantly buzzing in the ears of referees.

“The way that he’s evolved his game, it’s similar to myself,” former All Black Carter said.

“His ability to control the game and influence the game has been huge for Ireland over the last few years. And the big reason why they’ve been so successful is because of his game management. The way he directs the team around the field. He’s such a pivotal, influential player.”

All Black Dan Carter during a World Cup semifinal against South Africa at Twickenham in London on 24 October 2015. (Photo: Stu Forster / Getty Images)

Petulance personified?

If you judge Sexton by his face, he possesses the appearance of a petulant little boy. When his face is in its natural state, he looks like a smirking schoolboy after he’s just stuck a “kick me” sign on a classmate’s back.  

Over the years he has done little to dispel his reputation as a mosquito constantly buzzing in the ears of referees to question their decisions. He can overdo it sometimes, to the ire of opposition players and supporters, and has been accused regularly  of unsportsmanlike behaviour during his career.

He did receive a three-game suspension before the World Cup, which meant he sat out Ireland’s pre-tournament matches.

The veteran flyhalf was cited for angrily confronting the officials as his Leinster outfit were downed 27-26 by La Rochelle in the European Champions Cup final earlier this year.

Jonny Wilkinson of Toulon is tackled during the Top 14 final against Castres Olympique at Stade de France in Paris on 31 May 2014. (Photo: Warren Little / Getty Images)

Some felt the suspension was too light, especially because Sexton had not been part of the day’s proceedings, having been sidelined with an injury. As such, he had no business being on the field. Never mind confronting officials.   

Nevertheless, since that suspension, as well as six-month injury layoff, Sexton has once again been imperious for Ireland so far in France.

Whether he can add further pages to his storied career by helping Ireland to a maiden semifinal, and possibly a World Cup crown, remains to be seen. DM


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