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Jonny Sexton planning to ruin old boss Michael Cheika's day

by Ruaidhri O'Connor

Jonathan Sexton recalls his younger days with Leinster and laughs at himself. Back then, Michael Cheika was in charge of the furnace Sexton was forged in, but the young Sexton's problem was that things didn't get hot enough, quickly enough.

He'd grow tired of sitting on his hands and watching. With Felipe Contepomi available, Cheika demanded patience from his young tyro. It was almost inevitable the pair clashed.

"I was obviously very eager to break into the Leinster team," Sexton recalls. "When you are hungry and when you want to get into the team you are a bit delusional at times I have to admit.

"How I thought I could get in instead of Felipe or Gordon (D'Arcy) or Brian (O'Driscoll), looking back now it was a bit silly.

"But I suppose it is better to be like that when you are that age than sit back and accept it. Yeah, we had some run-ins, and I felt I wanted to play more."

When he did get his chance, he wasn't always allowed to see it through. A Heineken Cup game against Castres saw Sexton withdrawn at half-time.

"When you are that young and inexperienced, when you get taken off you don't look at the bigger picture. I just viewed it as everything being my fault and he's taken me off, making me the scapegoat," he admits.

"Especially in our latter years in Leinster I had a great relationship with him, he gave me my first chance and I have learnt so much from him in terms of character and trying to drive standards and what's expected of professional rugby players. I can't speak highly enough of him."

He'd often get the chance to give his coach a few licks. Cheika's fondness for throwing himself into the full contact stuff was well known.

The Australian got his own back in the pair's most recent meeting when the touring Lions played Cheika's Waratahs Down Under last year.

Sexton had a target on his head for that game and the Waratahs went to work on him. Afterwards, the hosts landed into the Lions dressing-room for a beer, as tradition demands. Cheika was smiling.

"Riff was there as well, Alan Gaffney, and I had a good laugh with him as well. They were probably trying to wind me up and it worked, but I didn't let it affect me too much," Sexton says.

Still, there's an undeniable fondness when Sexton talks about Cheika. He got in touch recently to congratulate him on the Australia job but it's one of their earliest meetings that sticks with Sexton.

It's years since but he still recalls a game with the Leinster U-20s and a quiet word of encouragement.

"He gave me my first chance at Leinster and I will always be grateful for that. I remember playing a Leinster U-20s game, playing well and coming off with about five minutes to go," Sexton says.

"I was just sitting on the replacements bench and he came down and I'd never met him before and he just tapped me on the shoulder and said 'great game' and 'I'll see you training with the senior team during the week'.

"That was when I was 19 so it gave me the first lift in my confidence in my career and going forwards towards professionalism after that."

By the time Cheika left, Sexton had already established himself as one of the best 10s around. Joe Schmidt picked up the can to the point where the St Mary's man is on the shortlist for World Player of the Year.

"They both have similar philosophies that they want to play with the ball in hand. Cheika comes from Randwick and that's the philosophy there and Joe has a similar philosophy," explains Sexton.

"They are similar characters in some ways, they are both fiery in their own way, they both want the best from the team and they drive high standards. I have learned so much from both of them.

"They are the two coaches I have spent the most amount of time with in my career so far and are the two that have left the biggest impression on me, definitely."

It's that same familiarity with Cheika's ways that leaves Sexton suspicious of the team Australia released yesterday. Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper and Will Genia are all down to start on the bench. The latter two performed media duties earlier this week which is usually a strong sign that they'll be centrally involved.

Matt Toomua, an experienced out-half, is named at 12, paired with Tevita Kuridrani in the centre.

And Sexton says they'll pose a different challenge for Ireland's new-look midfield of Gordon D'Arcy and Robbie Henshaw.

"We were pretty surprised that Toomua hadn't played in the games before - we were so impressed with him in the games last year," he says.

"He seems to be a nice foil for the 10s because he has played a lot of 10 and when you have guy that has played a lot of 10 as well as he has, he can give you good information that can make your life a lot easier.

"We saw the influence he had against us last year so we were surprised he hasn't played and that now he comes in, we kind of predicted that."

While D'Arcy returns after injury, Henshaw will once again be thrown in at the deep end against a side that has accumulated 488 caps but Sexton has no fears concerning the Connacht youngster.

"I think Robbie has come along so much in the space of 12 months. This time last year he came on against Australia and he probably didn't do himself justice," says Sexton.

"But the improvement in a year has been phenomenal and that's down to the work Pat (Lam) is doing in Connacht and Joe getting his hands on him too. He's come on leaps and bounds.

"It's almost unrecognisable the player he has been in camp and I have been so impressed with him.

"His performance in the game against South Africa. . . Jean de Villiers has been around so long and is such a clever player and for Robbie to stand up to him and (Jan) Serfontein physically the way he did is great for us going forward."

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