Today will mark the 100th Test appearance of Ireland’s outhalf Johnny Sexton.
There was once a time where debates over who was superior between O’Gara or Sexton could go either way. They have since been firmly put to bed.
Now the question that will be asked is, ‘Is Johnny Sexton Ireland’s greatest-ever flyhalf?’ Fans of the great Jackie Kyle would have a thing or two to say, but the argument is well and truly alive.
Nobody would have thought that we would be here when the 24-yea-old, a relatively late debutant, made his first international appearance against Fiji.
But here we are, 100 caps, 925 points, 15 tries, and many accolades later.
At 36-years-old he is arguably as crucial to the team as he ever was, and looks set to lead us into another World Cup.
We take a look at back at how he got here and how he achieved his greatness.
After helping to guide Leinster to Heineken Cup glory in 2009, which included a monster drop goal in the final, it was impossible not to start taking Sexton seriously.
Proper competition for O’Gara’s international 10 jersey had finally arrived, and indeed it had already begun after Sexton famously screamed in his face when Gordon D’Arcy had scored in the semi-final against O’Gara’s Munster.
O'Gara and Sexton's relationship has been well documented in the media. Now they are best of friends, but the beginning was famously bitter, as O'Gara recalled in his autobiography,
"Our relationship started badly."
"When he took to the pitch in that Munster-Leinster semi-final at Croke Park in 2009 I knew very little about him, if anything at all. He wasn’t really a big name at Leinster even though he had been around the scene for a while.”
"I can still picture Johnny standing over me screaming when they scored a try – clearly a release of frustration."
"Aside from having to wait for his chance with Leinster, I’d most definitely said something to him as well. It’s a pity I don’t recall what I said to fire him up, but as we all know now, it doesn’t take much."
"Certainly that scream was him announcing to the world ‘I’m here, and I’m here to stay’. And fair play to him. That’s what he’s done."
Declan Kidney rewarded the Leinsterman with a call up to the squad and a start in an Autumn Series games against Fiji.
Sexton delivered, and put in a man of the match display.
But a bigger test and an even more impressive performance would come a week later when Ireland faced off against a strong South African side on a foggy day in Croke Park.
Sexton kicked all of Ireland’s points in a famous 15-10 victory, and cemented himself as Ireland’s starting outhalf.
The All Black Victories
Until 2016 Ireland had never beaten the All Blacks.
An unassuming Autumn Test in Chicago’s Soldier Field did not look like a likely place to break the hoodoo. But so it came to pass, and Ireland ran out 40-29 victors in a near flawless display, with Sexton pulling the strings.
The victory over the same side in 2018 was the peak of Joe Schmidt’s Irish team, and arguably Sexton’s peak as a player.
It was a much stronger New Zealand side that Ireland faced, and it was a dominant 18-10 win.
It showed as well as any performance in his 99 tests, Sexton’s capabilities as both a leader and a decision maker.
Six Nations and World Player of the Year
It didn’t take long for Joe Schmidt to put his stamp on the Irish team, winning his first two Six Nations Championships.
A major factor in this was his relationship with Sexton, and the outhalf’s ability to execute Schmidt’s ideas on the field. This was most obvious during Ireland's three Championship wins under the Kiwi.
From the very beginning Schmidt was a fan of Sexton, and this quote from the coach sums it up,
"I met with him [Brian O'Driscoll], Jonny Sexton and Leo Cullen as I was contemplating taking on this challenge of coaching Leinster. After discussing a great deal of issues, and asking 'what could I add to the mix?' I finally asked this question: 'what if someone doesn't do what I ask them to do?'
Without batting an eyelid Jonny Sexton said 'You don't have to worry about that. We'll take care of that.'
I thought to myself, 'with a team like this how could I go wrong?' If the players drive the environment it is a massive, massive strength in any environment."
The highlight of the 2014 tournament was his two tries in an edge of your seat win in Paris that sealed the Championship.
Sexton was just as key in 2015, when Ireland recorded a massive win at home to England, and a clutch 10-40 win over Scotland in the final game.
All of these moments however would pale in comparison to Sexton’s exploits in the 2018 edition.
His finest moment came in the first game of the tournament, on a soggy night in Paros.
Down by a point with no time left on the clock, Sexton orchestrated a march up the field from their own 22, that included a pin point 22 drop out and a cross-field kick, before sealing the win with a 45 metre drop goal - forever known as le Drop - after 41 phases.
He continued to produce throughout the tournament and coupled with his performance against the All Blacks, he was a shoe-in for World Rugby Player of the Year.
He beat out the mercurial Beauden Barrett for the award, and put his name alongside greats such as Jonny Wilkinson and Dan Carter.
Thanks for the memories Johnny, and here’s to many more.