Would World Cup Glory Make Johnny Sexton Ireland’s Greatest Ever?
Johnny Sexton is undoubtedly one of the greatest players to ever set foot on a rugby pitch; but is he Ireland’s greatest ever?
That’s the question we try to answer in this post as we recap the career of Ireland’s legendary fly-half ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. This autumn’s World Cup is set to be Sexton’s curtain call as he looks to cap off an incredible career with a fairytale ending.
Let’s take a look at Sexton’s career and discuss his standing in the conversation for Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player.
Sexton Ireland’s Key Player Across Golden Era
Johnny Sexton has been a household name in Ireland for his talent and impact on rugby union in this country for the best part of seventeen years. He made his debut for province Leinster all the way back in 2006.
An Ireland debut soon followed which was a sign of things to come for the better part of the next two decades. The then 24-year-old delivered a Man of the Match performance in a 41-6 victory over Fiji where he kicked 7/7 including five conversions and two penalties.
That was the beginning of an international career filled with iconic moments and trophies. The 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year award, ‘that’ drop goal in Paris (see video below) to leading Ireland to victory over New Zealand in New Zealand. Those are just a few examples that typify the Leinster man’s greatness.
Ireland Career Accolades
Sexton has been ever-present during a golden era for Irish Rugby. The Dublin native has been a key part of 12 trophy successes along with a World Rugby Player of the Year award and 3 total nominations.
4× Six Nations Championships (2014, 2015, 2018, 2023)
2× Grand Slam victories (2018, 2023)
3× Triple Crown wins (2018, 2022, 2023)
3x Test Series successes (2014, 2018, 2022)
1x World Rugby Player of the Year (2018)
The one prize that alludes him with Ireland is a World Cup triumph.
Sexton’s Career Stats & Individual Accolades
The amount of team successes that the Leinster legend has been involved in is tremendous and the individual stats and accolades don’t make for bad reading either.
Sexton is already Ireland’s second oldest-ever Rugby Player for his appearance against England back in March at 37 years old and 250 days. He is currently only second to John Hayes who was 37 years old and 277 days when he played for Ireland against Scotland back in 2011.
Sexton will become Ireland’s oldest ever player when he appears at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Going into the 2023 Rugby World Cup Sexton is currently fifth in the all-time Ireland appearances chart with 113 caps.
Only four players have represented the country more than him:
Brian O’Driscoll (133)
Ronan O’Gara (128)
Cian Healy (125)
Rory Best (124)
Sexton has been capped five more times than Paul O’Connell who is another man in the conversation to be called Ireland’s greatest ever. The most capped active player behind Sexton is scrum-half Conor Murray with 107.
Try-Threat From Fly-Half
Sexton, despite not scoring a try for Ireland since their victory over Japan in the Aviva Stadium back on the 6th of November 2021, has still managed to score sixteen tries for his country over the course of his career.
Sexton scored his first try for Ireland in a 22-26 defeat against France during the 2011 Rugby World Cup warm-up matches. Ireland have won 11/11 of the matches played where Sexton scored a try.
If Sexton scores two tries in the 2023 Rugby World Cup he would enter the top-10 for most tries scored for Ireland.
Can Pass O’Gara As All-Time Points Scorer In RWC
Sexton is second in the all-time points chart for Ireland having scored 1050 points for his country.
He trails Ronan O’Gara by thirty-three points on the all-time Ireland points list so it is likely that he passes O’Gara and becomes Ireland’s all-time top points scorer at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Sexton has amassed that total of 1050 points courtesy of 15 tries, 165 conversions, 211 penalties and 4 drop goals for Ireland.
The Ireland fly-half has averaged 9.29 points per game while playing for Ireland which is more than any of the top-10 points scorers aside from Ollie Campbell who scored 217 points in 22 caps which works out as 9.86 points per game.
Sexton’s highest points total in a game for Ireland is 22 points. That came in a 32-18 victory against England in 2021 and is tenth on the charts for most points scored for Ireland in a match. Ronan O’Gara tops that list with a 32-point haul against Samoa in 2003.
Sexton has captained Ireland 25 times which is the fifth most times behind Brian O’Driscoll (83), Rory Best (38), Keith Wood (36) and Paul O’Connell (28). Sexton will likely overtake Paul O’Connell on this list at this Rugby World Cup barring injury.
One of the most impressive aspects of Sexton’s Irish captaincy is that he has by far the best win rate as captain of Ireland at 84%. That is 11% more than his closest challenger William Crawford (1924-1927)’s. It is also way ahead of legendary Irish captains like Paul O’Connell (64.29%), Rory Best (63.1%) and Brian O’Driscoll (62.65%).
Of course, Sexton has had the fortune of captaining one of the most talented crop of Irish players. With that said, that record does speak volumes to his leadership skills and what he must’ve learnt from Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll.
Johnny Sexton has had two spells with Leinster. The first of those spanned from 2006-2013.
Sexton would then make a surprise move to French outfit Racing 92. That move to France didn’t prove particularly successful and ended a mere 18 months later as he returned to Leinster in 2015.
During that time Sexton became Leinster’s all-time points scorer with 1646 across 189 matches cementing himself as an all-time Leinster great.
Leinster Career Accolades
His provincial career with Leinster has also been a myriad of success (although we won’t talk too much about the 18-month spell at Racing 92).
Sexton’s accolades with Leinster are plenty:
4x European Champions Cups (2009, 2011, 2012, 2018)
1x European Challenge Cup (2013)
6x Pro14 (2008, 2013, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021)
2x Irish Shields (2022, 2023).
Ireland’s Greatest Ever Rugby Player?
So, is Johnny Sexton Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player? Well, the consensus opinion is that Brian O’Driscoll is Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player and at this point in time you’d probably have to give O’Driscoll the nod over Sexton.
Legendary Irish forward and captain Paul O’Connell is also someone that would have to be given mention in that conversation for Ireland’s greatest ever player too.
While O’Driscoll is number one in the eyes of most that doesn’t meant that Sexton is without a fair claim to the throne. If you examine the Leinster fly-half’s trophy haul at club and international level, look at the records and have witnessed the performances then you’d be crazy not to say Sexton belongs in that conversation. And that’s coming from a Munster man who still prefers Ronan O’Gara to this day.
However, I think the massive caveat with Sexton’s success is he has played with Leinster and Ireland in a golden age for Irish Rugby. So you can make the argument that his success with the national team was easier given the talent of the players around him.
World Cup Glory Can Make Sexton Ireland’s Greatest
If Ireland can prove me wrong along with many other doubters and shock the world by winning their first-ever Rugby World Cup then the tenor of the conversation will completely change.
Then, and only then, by my reckoning can Johnny Sexton be considered “Ireland’s Greatest Ever Rugby Player”.
So there you have it. To answer the question, ‘Is Johnny Sexton Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player?’ No, not at this point in time but he can still claim that title.
If Sexton leads Ireland to Rugby World Cup glory then he will deservedly become Ireland’s greatest ever in the eyes of many people.
Ireland’s 2023 Rugby World Cup Hopes
As mentioned previously, Johnny Sexton’s case to be called the greatest rugby player that Ireland has ever produced will rely heavily on Ireland’s performance in the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Ireland are the fourth favourites to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup going into the tournament at odds of 9/2. The Irish have been drawn in a tough pool with third favourites and reigning champions South Africa plus one of the strongest Scotland teams we’ve seen in recent years.
The possibility of a disappointing pool stage exit isn’t off the table as a result of this tough pool. With that said, Ireland will be expected to qualify although it could be more difficult than many people might expect.
Ireland, assuming they qualify, will have to play either New Zealand or France (barring a miracle) in the quarter-final. So, it could be an all too familiar quarter-final exit for the Irish as they will likely go into that game as the underdogs.
If Ireland and Sexton can get over the line in that quarter-final then not only would Andy Farrell’s side be in uncharted territory but they would also face weaker opposition in the semi-final.
That ‘weaker opposition’ would likely be one of England, Australia, Argentina or Wales. If Ireland are to get over the line in that game it would mean a first ever Rugby World Cup Final appearance for the country and, depending on performances, put Johnny Sexton squarely into the conversation as Ireland’s greatest ever player.
We previewed Ireland’s Rugby World Cup chances in a recent post and you can view all of Ireland’s stage of elimination odds below.
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