Ireland captain Johnny Sexton has not given up hope of playing at the next Rugby World Cup and admits being written off fuels his motivation.
Sexton has been his country’s first-choice fly-half for the best part of a decade and will be 38 by the time of the 2023 tournament in France.
His advancing years, combined with a recent hamstring issue which ruled him out of the Autumn Nations Cup games against England and Georgia, have led to questions about his long-term international future.
While the 35-year-old believes some former Ireland players and members of the media wish to see him hang up his boots imminently, he intends to carry on for as long as he remains “hungry”.
I think I can
“Look, there have been guys in teams over the years that have gone to World Cups at 37, 38,” said Sexton, who is set return from injury against Scotland on Saturday.
“Do I think I can get there? I think I can. But at the age you’re at, you’ve got to take it one year at a time.
“I’m still hungry, I still love the game, I still love competing, I still love training and being part of this team. I don’t see any reason to stop.
“I want to be the best out-half in Ireland and I still have aspirations for other things as well.
“I am not going to retire just because you guys (the media) want me to. I’ll keep going while I feel good and I feel hungry. I know some past players want to retire me as well – but I will crack on.”
Sexton was appointed national team skipper following the retirement of Rory Best after last year’s World Cup in Japan.
The Leinster man is currently six short of a century of Test caps for Ireland, while only his number 10 predecessor Ronan O’Gara has scored more points for the country.
He returned to the international setup after lockdown carrying a hamstring problem, before suffering a similar issue in the opening Autumn Nations Cup match with Wales.
🗣️ "Fly-half Burns has not recovered from the groin issue which cut short his try-scoring full international debut against Georgia on Sunday." #AutumnNationsCup
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) December 1, 2020
Sexton played down the significance of those recent injury troubles and revealed he is drawing confidence from former Leinster team-mate Brad Thorn, who won the 2011 World Cup with New Zealand at the age of 36.
“Professional rugby, injury is just part of it. I feel good when I’m out there on the pitch,” said Sexton.
“You’re only a big injury from being finished totally, no matter what age you are.
“And then it’s just about getting out there and trying to perform and prove that there’s more in me, and I feel there is. I feel I can get to another level and the day that that’s not (the case) is the day I will walk away.
“If I do stay on and I do continue to play, it’s not like it’s totally alien and no one has ever done it before, especially being an out-half. I am not a player relying massively on pace over the years.
“Brad Thorn, a guy I played with, is my inspiration at the moment. I keep in touch with him a little bit. Picked his brain a couple of times.”