IT WASN’T ALWAYS a smooth relationship between Johnny Sexton and Michael Cheika. Before Felipe Contepomi’s knee injury in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster, Sexton had generally taken one step forward and two steps back under Cheika at Leinster.
A good performance off the bench would be followed by a less than stellar showing that would relegate the out-half to some meagre playing time. In fact, Sexton was so starved of first team rugby that he actually went back to St Mary’s RFC just to get a full 80 minutes.
By now you know that Sexton grasped his chance in that famous semi-final win over Munster and hasn’t looked back. Cheika says he isn’t surprised with the progression of the out-half from bench-warmer to IRB Player of the Year nominee because he could always see something special in Sexton (selective memory much?).
The new Australian coach will face Joe Schmidt’s Ireland at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday and Sexton’s threat is something that Cheika is preparing for.
“He always had that in him, you could see that he always had that in him from when he would stare up at me from the reserve bench giving me daggers as to why I wouldn’t put him in,” Cheika said.
“That competitive spirit is what is driving him more than ever I would imagine. The experience in France will help him but we have to do our best to put him off his game. He is their general and we have to put a lot of pressure on him and make sure that he feels it.”
Sexton wasn’t the only current international nurtured by Cheika so he will have a detailed insight into some of Ireland’s key performers this Saturday. However, the Australian coach credited the players rather than himself for the rapid development since he first selected them at provincial level. He did admit that knowing the players initimately might give him a slight edge though.
“The players are their own men and they get themselves to where they are,” Cheika said.
“You like to think that you know them though. It’s been a while [since he coached them] – four or five years. They have kicked on really well. We have to be on our guard really well because they are good players.”
Cheika paid a visit to Leinster’s new training facility during the week – the complex in UCD probably wouldn’t have been possible without the progress the Australian made as Leinster coach.
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But once again, he was quick to not treat the facility – and the week back in Ireland – as a monument to his greatness.
“It was nice to go up to Leinster and see where they are and how it is built,” Cheika said.
“There are a lot of good friendships made between the players and some administrators. But it definitely isn’t a time to reflect and just think ‘how good am I?’ and if anything, I should be thanking them more than they should be thanking me.”
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