By Peter Jackson
Johnny Sexton is almost certainly the best player in Europe, one driven ever upward by an obsessive quest for perfection. He is, without doubt, the biggest single asset in the PRO14, heading a cast of several hundred strewn across two continents. He is also its greatest contradiction, a shining light in danger of becoming the tournament’s Invisible Man.
The blurring of his image in a PRO14 context has been in inverse proportion to his profile as a global superstar. While one waxes ever higher, the other wanes ever lower, so much so that Sexton and the PRO14 may not sound out of place next to Cromarty, Dogger or Forties in a Shipping Forecast sounding a warning on visibility: “Very poor or fog.’’
Amid the deluge of self-congratulation over their new television deal, the PRO14 might have been tempted to commission a video proclaiming Sexton along the usual tub-thumping lines: “Coming to a stadium near you.’’ Except such a claim would not bear scrutiny unless you happen to live within striking distance of Dublin.
Over the last two seasons Sexton has started nine matches for Leinster in the PRO12-14 plus one as a sub. All but one took place in his hometown, either at the RDS in Ballsbridge or on the bigger stage across the road at what we old-timers remember fondly as Lansdowne Road.
The one non-Irish appearance was at Cardiff Arms Park against Blues on October 1, 2016, his only PRO14 match in Wales over the last two years. When he brings his champion football team to the Welsh capital next month, Pep Guardiola will have been there twice as often as the Irish prince of fly-halves in not much more than six months.
Sexton’s work load is dictated by his employers, the IRFU, whose primary goal is to ensure he and the rest of the national squad arrive on the Test stage in optimum condition. The Champions’ Cup comes next on the priority list with the PRO14 bringing up the rear.
The pecking order is reflected by the fact that over the last two season, Sexton has started 18 Tests for Ireland and the Lions, 12 matches in the Champions’ Cup for Leinster and nine in the PRO14.
There is no reason to suppose that the coming season will be any different. Two large chunks of the season will, as usual, be out of bounds to Leinster – the whole of November when Ireland play four Tests followed by two months in the New Year when they play five more in the Six Nations.
That leaves Leinster to squeeze their most valuable player into an absolute maximum of 14 matches. The fact that they have a reserve team strong enough to ensure a place in the PRO14 play-offs puts an even greater squeeze on Sexton’s involvement in the competition.
Their defence of the Champions’ Cup, scheduled to reach its climax at St James’ Park next May, will be the major goal. Nobody will be surprised should they finish the coming season on Tyneside which would require negotiating nine matches, ideally under Sexton’s baton.
That would leave him precious little scope for PRO14 matters, perhaps nothing more than a couple of early season appearances to warm up for Europe and a couple more in the closing weeks with another title to be defended.
The English equivalent of Sexton, Owen Farrell, started four times more often in the Aviva Premiership last season. Unlike Sexton, the England captain is employed not by the RFU but by his club, Saracens.
Last season Farrell made a total of 31 appearances, 15 in the Premiership, seven in Europe and nine for England. Sexton made 12 for Leinster and ten for Ireland. The season before that, including the Lions tour, Farrell featured in 31 matches, Sexton in nine fewer.
The IRFU will point to those figures as evidence of their policy tailored to guarantee their elite employees a greater chance of achieving longevity in the international arena. Not for nothing does Sexton talk about playing until he is 40 and that despite the fact that, like Jonny Wilkinson before him, he has taken a battering for his bravery.
Farrell lacks for nothing when it comes to the bodyline stuff and yet he still manages to play more than 50 per cent of Sarries’ bread-and-butter fixtures in the Premiership. Sexton’s percentage presence in the PRO14 last season amounted to fractionally below 20 as it did for the season before that.
With a Grand Slam to defend in the New Year and a World Cup final to be reached in keeping with their ranking as second only to New Zealand, Ireland’s potential for a year like no other ensures that the PRO14 will have to make do with only fleeting glimpses of their star performer.
Under Martin Anayi’s leadership as chief executive, what began as the Celtic League has pushed its frontiers back all the way to Africa in search of new markets. Their awarding of exclusive live rights to the Irish pay-per-view channel Premier Sports eliminates audiences of up to 160,000 on BBC Wales for their Friday night Scrum V live.
The PRO14 swear the increased money makes it worthwhile but without saying how much is involved. Maybe tens of thousand will subscribe and the venture will be a resounding success but for those who will not be coughing up, it will serve to heighten Sexton’s invisibility.
S4C have pulled off a coup with their schedule of television coverage during the first five rounds of the PRO14. In addition to one live fixture each Saturday afternoon, they will double up on Sunday afternoon with another ‘as live’ match from the day before or the previous Friday night.
A condition of the deal prevents the Welsh language channel from offering the red button option used by English-speaking followers of the four regional teams. That is unlikely to dissuade those who choose to swell S4C’s audience rather than reach into their pocket to pay for satellite coverage.
The Blues, Dragons and Osprey will be featured in one live home match each over the five Saturdays throughout next month. The Scarlets, where Welsh-speaking support is strongest, will feature in three plus one ‘as live’.
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