This year could be one to remember for Ireland captain Johnny Sexton as he prepares for his 13th Guinness Six Nations campaign.
Sexton, 37, has overcome his facial injury thanks to the help of a ‘funny mask’ and will almost certainly run out in the No.10 jersey for Ireland in Cardiff in less than a fortnight.
Ireland come into the Championship as the No.1 ranked team in the world and favourites to claim a first title since 2018 while they are also bidding to finally break the World Cup quarter-final hoodoo in the autumn.
But Sexton, a three-time winner of the Championship including the 2018 Grand Slam, is not thinking too far ahead, insisting Andy Farrell’s side are looking no further than that clash with Wales on February 4.
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He said: “The older you get, the more selfish you get, you want to make the most of every opportunity and it is such a special Championship, it is so hard to win.
“You talk about how many titles Ireland have over the last 20 or 30 years and it is not too many, it is a special thing to achieve something in the Championship and we are not talking about the World Cup at all.
“We are not even talking about France right now, we are talking about Wales for the next two weeks and how we can get ourselves in the best shape possible.
“I do think it’s important though to talk about the past, if you talk about 2019, to keep the momentum going, to prove that we can do something in the World Cup. We need to go and do something in the Six Nations as well.
“But 100 percent we will be doing what we can to win this Championship.”
Sexton enjoyed arguably his greatest year to date in 2018, winning the Guinness PRO14 and Heineken Champions Cup double with Leinster and the Grand Slam with Ireland, before going on to win World Rugby Player of the Year – the first Irishman to win the award since Keith Wood in 2001.
Ireland now have another winner of that prestigious title in their squad after flanker Josh van der Flier was crowned the 2022 winner after an historic year for Ireland with series victory in New Zealand.
And Sexton was hugely complimentary about his teammate.
“Josh is the most humble man you will ever meet,” he added.
“He obviously went and won Player of the Year and he has been outstanding for us and he has shown no signs of letting up.
“He has started the year really well, and we are going to need him in this campaign, he has been fantastic for us over the last 18 months since he got his break.”
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One man who was not included in the squad was Sexton’s long-time understudy at fly-half Joey Carbery, who was omitted from the squad for the first time since 2016, with Ross Byrne and Jack Crowley the other fly-halves included in the squad.
Sexton believes Carbery will bounce back stronger though and is encouraging the 27-year-old to prove a point.
He said: “It’s part and parcel of the game.
“How you bounce back from it is the true sign of a character and a player, and I’m sure he will bounce back.
“He’ll have plenty of opportunities going forward to get back in, he’s a good guy and a great player, so I wish him all the best and I will reach out to him soon.”