Johnny Sexton: I am honoured to lead Ireland into new era
Johnny Sexton says he is honoured and ready to lead a fresh Ireland side into the 2020 Six Nations.
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The Leinster skipper was chosen yesterday by new national coach Andy Farrell for the championship that begins with Scotland in Dublin next month.
The first-time head coach, who succeeded Joe Schmidt after the disappointing World Cup campaign, has named five debutants in the 35-panel including Ulster duo Billy Burns and Tom O'Toole.
In addition, four uncapped youngsters will train alongside the senior panel at their new base in Abbotstown, among them in-form Ulster wing Robert Baloucoune.
"First of all it's a massive honour to be asked to do it," said Sexton who succeeds the now-retired Rory Best. "I obviously got a taste for it during the World Cup against Russia for that one game and I've done it in patches with Ireland in-game when either Rory or Pete O'Mahony have gone off in previous games.
"It's something that I enjoy but ultimately it's a huge honour, the biggest honour of my career to be asked to do it and I'm really looking forward to it and to the challenges that are coming up and hopefully we can have a successful Six Nations now."
Sexton hasn't played since injuring a knee against Northampton in the Champions Cup during December's back-to-backs but is aiming to be back in time for warm-weather training in Portugal next week.
"In terms of my body I am feeling really good," he said. "I've obviously had a few weeks out with the knee but I am close to getting back to full training this week and hopefully I'll be fully ready to go next week and into the Six Nations."
Sexton hasn’t played since injuring a knee against Northampton in the Champions Cup during December’s back-to-backs but is aiming to be back in time for warm-weather training in Portugal next week.
“In terms of my body, I’m feeling really good,” he said. “I’ve obviously had a few weeks out with the knee, but I’m close to getting back to full training this week and hopefully I’ll be fully ready to go next week and into the Six Nations.”
A new coaching ticket and plenty of new faces, Sexton added that the squad were excited for the challenge ahead after a brief get-together last month.
“It was great to get to know the new faces,” he said. “Obviously I knew John Fogarty from Leinster very well, he’s a great character so it was good to meet him again, and Mike Catt obviously meeting him for the first time.
“There were a lot of familiar faces and a lot of new faces in the playing group, and we changed up where we’re training. So it’s going to feel fresh and the levels of excitement were unbelievably high.
“We were only in there for a day really but we set our stall for what’s ahead, really looking forward to getting back in there and keep going.”
For all the new faces, there were some disappointed figures, too, with Ulster’s in-form Stuart McCloskey missing out — so too his provincial team-mate Jordi Murphy as well as the vastly experienced full-back Rob Kearney.
Rob Herring is included at hooker having been an unused late call-up to the World Cup, with the shake up at hooker seeing Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell excluded but Ronan Kelleher and Dave Heffernan included.
O’Toole isn’t the only Ulster prop included with Jack McGrath earning a recall after missing the World Cup, while another who missed out on Japan, John Cooney, has used strong form at Kingspan to catapult himself back into the reckoning.
His English-born half-back partner Burns will be hoping for a debut, while Will Addison’s inclusion alongside usual faces Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson will ease fears over the calf injury he picked up in Clermont.
Sexton is the 106th player to captain the country and, having taken on the responsibility with his province, Leinster’s Garry Ringrose believes the fly-half can be an ever better leader in green.
“As a supporter I watched him when I was younger, and I still consider myself lucky to play alongside him based on what he has achieved and what he’s going to keep doing,” Ringrose said.
“He’s been a brilliant captain at Leinster and there was no dispute when Isa (Nacewa) left, who the next man for the job was, and he’s taken that over brilliantly.
“He’s a quality player in himself but the competitive nature he has just brings the best out of people around him. Second best isn’t acceptable, which is the mindset you need to have, and he’s someone who drives that.
“So he’s been brilliant for the group with Leinster and yeah, if he took over the role for Ireland, it would be more of the same of what I’ve just said.”