Johnny Sexton says leading Ireland to the 2020 Six Nations Championship title with a victory over a resurgent France would be the “pinnacle” of his stellar career.
Fly-half Sexton was named World Player of the Year after starring in Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam success.
The 35-year-old has also accrued two other Six Nations titles and four European Cups with Leinster, as well as five Pro14 trophies.
But the British and Irish Lion believes captaining Ireland to this year’s Six Nations title would top the lot.
The tournament leaders head into Saturday’s coronavirus-delayed final round knowing a bonus-point win in Paris will guarantee them the title, although that will require Ireland to score at least four tries at the Stade de France.
“I haven’t really thought about it, until you said it there,” Sexton told a press conference on Tuesday.
“But now that you say it, it would be the pinnacle of my career to be captain of a team to win a trophy — especially for Ireland.”
Ireland went top of the table with a 50-17 rout of perennial strugglers Italy in Dublin last weekend after Covid-19 delayed the fixture by several months.
‘Aggressive France ‘
But a match against France in Paris promises to be a far sterner test for an Irish side whose last away game saw them well-beaten 24-12 by England in February.
France prepared for the fixture with a convincing 38-21 win at home to Wales last weekend in a specially created warm-up fixture.
‘Les Bleus’, who are also in title contention, have been a revived force since coach Fabien Galthie and defence chief Shaun Edwards, previously with Wales, took charge after last year’s World Cup in Japan.
“They (France) have been very impressive,” said Sexton, who had a stint with Paris club Racing.
“You can see the coaches’ finger prints all over it really in terms of defence, how much more aggressive they are with their line speed.
“Obviously, Shaun Edwards has been excellent with Wales over the years. We have found them particularly tough to break down with that line speed.
“Then with Galthie, obviously, the way they play is pure French, isn’t it?” he added.
“That offloading game, I know from my time there, they call it the ‘duels’ where they rely on beating you one-on-one -– they get that pass away into the space.”
In this respect, Sexton said Ireland need to pay close attention to France’s in-form Virimi Vakatawa, whom he played alongside when the New Zealand-born centre was struggling at Racing.
“I don’t think he hit it off too well with the coaches and he didn’t play a lot in my first season there,” Sexton recalled. “He ended up leaving and going to play Sevens for a few years and I think that’s where he found his game again.
“He realised how good he was. He came back and didn’t have a club for a while which is crazy and then obviously Racing got him back and he’s been brilliant for them ever since.
“He’s a massive threat and we’re going to need to be at our best to keep him out of the game.”
Sexton has already experienced one career highlight at the Stade de France, during the corresponding fixture two years ago.
France led 13-12 entering the closing stages only for Ireland to put together a 41-phase move that ended with Sexton kicking a drop-goal to seal a famous victory.
Fellow Leinster veteran Cian Healy, a team-mate that day and now set to win his 100th Ireland cap on Saturday, said: “When ‘Sexto’ lands such a crucial moment not only in that game but in Irish rugby history, you just lose your mind.
“They’re special things,” the prop added. “After the kick was probably the more memorable moment for me.
“We were all beside each other and there was chaos on the pitch.”