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Green giant 'I miss the family but I wanted to be here' - Johnny Sexton

It's a journey that Sexton has taken hundreds of times over the years, yet there was an unavoidable sense that this time was different.

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Ireland captain Johnny Sexton at the launch for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship. Photo: INPHO/Irish Rugby Football Union

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton at the launch for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship. Photo: INPHO/Irish Rugby Football Union

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton at the launch for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship. Photo: INPHO/Irish Rugby Football Union

After Johnny Sexton packed his bags and waved goodbye to his wife and kids yesterday morning, he made the short spin from his Dublin home to the Ireland squad's base in Kildare.

It's a journey that Sexton has taken hundreds of times over the years, yet there was an unavoidable sense that this time was different.

Entering Six Nations camp is not supposed to feel like you are about to embark on an eight-week World Cup or Lions tour, but given the restrictions around maintaining the integrity of the 'bubble', Sexton and his teammates said their farewells in the most surreal circumstances.

Joe Marler and Matteo Minozzi's decision to opt out of the Six Nations has shone a light on the difficulties some players have in being in a position to commit themselves to such stringent protocols.

For Sexton, he has a young family to think about, and while he understands the reasoning behind players dropping out, it was never really an option for the Ireland captain.

Opportunities

The 35-year-old knows he won't get too many more opportunities like this, so he intends to make the most of it, even if it does involve some sacrifices along the way.

"It was a different goodbye this morning, it's almost like you're going on to a World Cup, or you're going on a Lions tour. You're saying goodbye and you're saying a proper goodbye for whatever, eight weeks," Sexton explained.

"It's not as bad as that, but it's not like a normal Six Nations, where you say, 'I'll see you on Tuesday afternoon after training'.

"It could be a longer stint with the restrictions in place and trying to keep the bubble tight.

"Look, I can understand both ways. I saw Joe Marler pulled out of the England squad for family reasons, and I do understand that.

"But, also, the opportunity to play for your country and to give your country a lift, and to be part of people's happiest memories of the week in watching Ireland play - for me it's a huge pull."

"As much as I miss the family, I wanted to be here and to play for Ireland."

Sexton hopes to shake off a leg-muscle injury in time for the opener against Wales on Sunday week, as he looks to lead his country for the second season running.

The out-half is also optimistic that his future will be sorted in the next couple of weeks, as contract negotiations with the IRFU and Leinster are now well under way again.

And having watched Tom Brady book a record 10th career Super Bowl appearance last weekend, Sexton is not short of inspiration.

"It's pretty incredible at 43. I definitely don't want to go to that age, though, that's too much," he smiled.

"Look, a lot of it has been me just being a little bit stubborn or half joking, but you've got to take it campaign by campaign, or year by year, when you get to this age.

"At the moment, I feel good despite picking up a niggle, as sometimes is the case before you go into Irish camp, but it is what it is and, hopefully, I'll be back flying next week.

"Like I said, take it campaign by campaign and see how you feel at the end of the season. But it is inspiring to see someone like that have success for so long."

Chief among Sexton's more pressing concerns is how he will help Ireland close the gap on England and France as another Six Nations beckons.

Having been around the international set-up since 2009, Sexton is well-versed on gauging the mood, and he is adamant that Ireland can be successful this year.

"I think all the Irish teams that I have played in that have been successful - whether it was the team that went back-to-back championships or the Grand Slam - we've often had good years and not come away with any silverware, they've often come off the back of a disappointing campaign beforehand.

"Campaigns where we've learned a lot of lessons and come back in as a similar kind of group with a few new faces and put the wrongs right," Sexton acknowledged.

"There's a sense of that, I think. We didn't get what we wanted out of last year. We were close, in terms of it coming down to the last game of the campaign against France, and we just came up short.

"So, hopefully, that's a good omen.

"I think adding to the coaching staff has been brilliant with Paul (O'Connell) coming in. Hopefully, that will give us another boost.

"Like I think when Joe (Schmidt) was coaching, he brought in Andy Farrell as assistant. It gave him another sort of kick-on and it refreshed the group massively. So (there are) a few similarities there."

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