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How even the Halloween firefighters would have trouble putting out the long-burning fire in Johnny Sexton’s belly

A growing consensus is that Ireland’s World Cup chances begin and end with the talismanci Dubliner

Jonathan Sexton during Ireland rugby squad training at IRFU High Performance Centre at the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin ahead of Saturday's clash with South Africa. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE


Even the firefighters who subdued Halloween’s angry dragon breath might admit defeat if tasked with dousing the eternal competitive inferno that rages at Johnny Sexton’s core.

Sexton, in his 38th year, remains consumed by life in the arena, his enduring need to pursue the best of himself as elemental as waves crashing against an ocean shore.

Spiky, combative, railing with unceasing fury against both time and any slippage in his or his compadres’ standards, the Dubliner remains a grandmaster of the playmaking art.

Irish rugby’s irreplaceable listed building, yet still its most voguish, vital landmark.

A cutting-edge museum piece.

A year of national fretting about Sexton’s health commences on Lansdowne Road this Saturday as the gargantuan, feral, pitiless South Africans roll into town.

Some 311 days out from the World Cup, Irish fortunes remain inextricably linked to their peerless field marshal.

His importance to Andy Farrell’s team is at the same fundamental level as David Clifford’s to Kerry.

Leinster’s timeless out-half is indispensable, the microchip without which the Irish mainframe becomes a wheezing tangle of disconnected, malfunctioning parts.

The difficulty is that every opponent implicitly understands this essential truth.

Ireland’s strength - being piloted by an all-time great out-half uniquely equipped to coax the best from his team - is also Ireland’s weakness.

History proves that reducing the voltage of Sexton’s brilliance can bring the whole green power grid crashing down.

In the Machiavellian world of professional rugby, there are pitifully few physical lines-in-the-sand adversaries will decline to cross to test this thesis.

On big match days, Sexton can often resemble a crash test dummy, as his body is pounded by high impact collisions. Many are legal, others exist in a grey area, a few amount to thuggery.

It is frequently uncomfortable watching as the veteran conductor of the orchestra is targeted for cheap shots, high tackles and late blows.

This is both brutal and intentional, opponents unapologetic in seeking to asset-strip their emerald rival of its most prized resource.

There is a particular anxious groan familiar to Six Nations or November international regulars at the Aviva.

It is the rising soundtrack of apprehension that spreads around the coliseum as play continues with Sexton lying prostrate in a far corner of the old ground, clutching some body part, wounded.

The giant screen will pan from the stilled, stretched figure to all those increasingly concerned faces in the towering stands.

As the medics crouch over Johnny, the sense is of 50,000 Leaving Cert students prising open their results envelope, the trajectory of their future to be determined over the next seconds.

That Sexton is unceasingly brave, his thermonuclear level of competitiveness not permitting him to take a backward step, ensures that hardly a single Irish fixture passes without one or two such cameos of high anxiety.

Against the ferocious South Africans, it seems inconceivable that Ireland’s captain will not have a target on his back.

Sexton won't flinch. He never does.

The World Cup is the alpha and omega of these late chapters of an immense career.

Ireland’s record at the tournament is abysmal, alone among the tiny few elite rugby nations in never having advanced to a semi-final, a rebuke to much of the hype that has accompanied the team for the greater part of the 21st century.

In France next autumn, Sexton and friends could conceivably face seven games over a fevered 50 days – pool games against the Boks, Scotland, Romania and the forever physical Tongans preceding what is hopefully passage into the even higher-intensity knockout stages.

Johnny will be nine months from turning 39, or to put it even more starkly, less than a year from commencing his 40th year on earth.

He will also be, by some distance, the single most important player in the starting line-up of any of the potential contenders.

Joey Carbery is his most likely understudy, with Ciaran Frawley and Jack Crowley younger candidates for the role of bench role.

But a growing consensus is that Ireland’s chances begin and end with Johnny.

He is still that good, that uniquely influential, a player operating at an entirely different level to every other number ten in the country.

And so, this Saturday evening, as the November chill closes in around Dublin, the 300-day festival of angst begins.

South Africa’s huge enforcers will go in search of Ireland’s talisman, knowing that to decommission or even diminish Sexton is to largely neutralise the team he leads.

Johnny knows it is coming, yet even now, the autumn leaves falling from the trees of his playing career, he will accept the challenge.

These are the days for which a creature of bottomless ambition lives.

A Saturday in the company of the world champions, his competitive fire stoked to white-hot, the keys to the kingdom jangling in the pockets of Ireland’s timeless warrior prince.

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