Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is a player who epitomises all you want from your fly half. He has exemplary core skills, he embraces the decision making responsibilities which come with the role, he backs himself against any opponent in any scenario, and he delivers in every aspect of the game. His contribution for his country is unquestionable and his standing on the global stage sees many call him the ‘perfect 10’.
Johnny is a special talent and he is a player I know well having played with him as part of my school and club team, St Mary’s College over a number of years. This school has a proud heritage of producing rugby players for the Irish team and can also claim emerging front row Jack McGrath and the recently retired voracious flanker Shane Jennings amongst its recent successful former pupils.
Sexton’s confidence in his own ability is unwavering and I had to laugh when I read that his Racing Metro team mates had compared him to Zlatan Ibrahimović, the Swedish soccer player known for his arrogance. Having witnessed first-hand Johnny’s forceful manner on the field I can understand how they could misinterpret this as arrogance. He is without doubt one of the most confident, driven players I have met and his desire to win means he sets very high standards for himself, expects nothing less from those around him, and isn’t slow to say if those standards are not met.
I interviewed him for Rugby Revealed and asked him to share his advice for playing this pivotal position known as ‘out half’ in Ireland.
What should a young player focus on?
For a young player coming up it’s about the basics. One of the best bits of advice I got growing up was from Alan Gaffney at Leinster, he said “You can think about all the things you want in the world but there is only 4 things you can do on a rugby pitch – pass, kick, run and tackle.” If you can get good at those 4 things and concentrate on them until you are excellent in the basics. Obviously there are other things like rucking which come into the equation but you should get good at the basics.
What are the specific aspects of the game that an outhalf must master?
There’s lots of stuff that outhalfs do that even journalists, pundits wouldn’t recognise like depth appreciation, when to go flat, when to kick it deep, when you’ve got to kick, when to run it. Often people think an outhalf runs everything and that’s often not the best thing to do. It’s the toughest position to play.
An outhalf probably makes more decisions that anyone on the pitch and he might make 200 decisions in the game and often one can cost the game. You might make 100 decisions in a game, get 95 of them right and get a couple wrong that cost your team.
Decision making is a big part of your role. How did you develop the skill?
I think guys can be good outhalfs and it’s a lot to do with experience. That used to drive me mad when I was younger when guys would talk about experience, but from an outhalf’s point of view you got to play games. You’ve got to experience making a wrong decision, often to get better.
So what is your decision making process when you have to decide to kick run pass?
Often [the opposition] show you a picture and it’s about trying to manipulate them as best you can and make them go the way you want them to go.
For instance if your blindside winger is standing inside you off the lineout, the full back might be pushed into a four up with the fullback going across to cover the left hand side and their blindside wing would drop back into the corner. They’ve got both corners covered, they’ve got four up in defence and there might be a bit of space down the middle over the top for the chip.
If you push your winger back, like he’s going to go for a box kick, that can totally change the picture. Their blindside wing might drop and stay across, the fullback might become more central. If their openside winger doesn’t drop it can open up the cross field kick, if he drops too much it can open up playing wide and then you rely on the outside backs to find the space behind, the full back doesn’t cover across.
There’s so much that goes through your mind, like what’s the next call, may be a team call based on your video review, based on what you scouted during the week, what you expect the opposition to do but often it changes. Just change the position of your blindside wing or fake something else you can manipulate them slightly.
The defence really tell you if you can run, kick or pass. If they play four up and the fullback is closing quick you might shift to 1 and then put the ball in behind the 15. If the full back is not closing and the winger is hanging off a bit you might play wide. Often you are attacking weak links as well. If their 10 is not a good defender you will attack him. If you target the 13 and he turns in a bit you try to attack him a bit.
Conditions on the night will dictate. Often you’ll have to kick when normally you’d run. The time in the game, 6 points up with minutes left, what option you take is important.
That is a lot to process. Is there one key factor a young player can focus on?
There’s lots of factors so it’s very difficult to pin point your exact decision making process so often you play what you feel. You go towards space.
You’ve got space everywhere in a match. You’ve got to be able to look into the back field, you’ve got to be able to look in front of you and try and spot the mismatches. Keep an eye on their forwards. There’s a lot to look at. The opposition 9 is he coming into the line if there is space in behind.
It’s easy to say play to the space but it’s a hard thing to do and you’d be surprised how few players actually do it.
What about the game plan?
We have a very rigid structured game plan but at the same time I have the freedom if I see something’s on.
The worst thing for a 10 is when you make a decision and its 5 on 3 and you run it and the winger has dropped the ball and the coach questions the decision to go. I’ve had coaches say that in my career and they tend to focus on the outcome rather than the decision. That’s where Joe has been outstanding for me. If I decide to run the ball and drop it, it’s still a good decision by me he’ll back that which is great because you want to be playing as an outhalf with a clear mind not having any doubts.
How did you develop your goal kicking routine?
You see kids that have copied routines off the guys on TV. I’ve used different routines over the years and you pick up different points along the way so your routine does change and it’s still changing to this day. Whatever I decide on my key thoughts during the week might change slightly. Say the week before I missed a couple left or a couple right you have to fix that. You might bring a thought into your weekly routine about trying to fix that. It evolves over a long time.
In terms of routine you need to do the same thing every time – how many steps you go back, how many steps to the side – because that puts you in the same position you’ve been in when you’ve been practising all week. That way you know if you do what you are meant to do that the ball will go over when the pressure comes on.
How have coaches helped you develop your game?
You get information along the way from coaches that helps you. I wouldn’t be the player I am today if I didn’t meet Joe Schmidt, Alan Gaffney, David Knox, Dave Alred.
I was labelled a ‘kicking 10’ when I was at school because people at Leinster didn’t think I could run with ball. Former team mate Felipe Contepomi taught me an unbelievable amount in my early career to improve that aspect of my game and without these sorts of guys I definitely wouldn’t have progressed to where I wanted to get to.
Which player inspired you?
I don’t strive to be like one outhalf. Johnny Wilkinson or like Dan Carter, arguably the best 10s that have played the game in the modern era, are the guys I admired growing up but at the same time I’ve taken bits of others games. Like Stephen Larkham the Australian outhalf, the way he would glide with the ball and his passing range was extraordinary or Ronan O’Gara’s famous spiral kick into the corner, you try to take the best bits of those guys’ games and incorporate them into yours.
How do you remain motivated to keep improving?
When you feel you have achieved something you believe you can achieve more. I think you are born that way or you’re not.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com