Sexton: New generation must deliver
Jonathan Sexton has called on Ireland's new generation of Test stars to begin demonstrating the consistency needed to prove they are worthy successors to household names such as Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.
A mixed autumn, during which a frustrating defeat by South Africa was tempered by a record victory over Argentina, proved to be a transitional period as coach Declan Kidney delved deep into his playing resources to combat an injury crisis.
With the influential O'Driscoll, O'Connell, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney lost to the treatment room, Kidney was forced to make an unprecedented number of changes.
Exciting talent like wing Craig Gilroy, second row Mike McCarthy and full-back Simon Zebo emerged to suggest the injuries were almost a blessing in disguise.
But Sexton insists their ambition must reach beyond playing for Ireland as the so called 'golden generation' of O'Driscoll and O'Connell enter their twilight years.
"Playing with guys like Brian O'Driscoll has been an honour for me and I'd put a lot of other players in that bracket; you learn so much from these guys," Sexton said.
"Those guys earned their reputations by producing in an Ireland jersey year in, year out, but it is time now for the younger guys to come in and start taking ownership of the team.
"The younger guys have produced on occasion but we haven't done it consistently and that's what we need to do now."
"People probably think I'm a new boy because I look about 15 but I'd say I'm somewhere in the middle" - Jonathan Sexton
Sexton, who made his debut in 2009 and has since accumulated 34 caps, is referring to himself as much as anyone when calling for players to impose themselves.
Test rugby has not been without its challenges for Sexton after a lengthy, and at times confidence-sapping, duel with O'Gara for the fly-half duties that at one stage left him repeatedly looking over his shoulder.
But O'Gara has been seen off - the 35-year-old now supplies support from the bench - with Sexton the most accomplished European in the position.
"People probably think I'm a new boy because I look about 15 but I'd say I'm somewhere in the middle," he said. "I've just turned 27 so it's up to people like me to take charge of the team.
"I found it hard when I first came in because Ronan O'Gara had been the outside-half in that team for 10 years.
"I wasn't sure whether the guys would listen to me in the same way they had listened to him. They are the kind of doubts you have when you come in."
Sexton's performances for Ireland and Leinster identify him as favourite for the Test number 10 jersey during the Lions tour to Australia this summer.
"The tour is something I desperately want to go on, but it's not worth thinking about right now," he added.
"I need to concentrate on my week-to-week performances. People say it's the pinnacle and it is.
"Only the best players get picked and it will be a massive honour for anyone who is picked."
Sexton will be shadowed throughout the Six Nations by speculation over his club career as he considers a lucrative move to France, with Racing Metro in pole position to sign a player who has won three Heineken Cups.
His contract at Leinster expires in the summer and with the Irish Rugby Football Union unable to match the £620,000 salary on offer from the big spending Top 14 outfit, he could be leaving for France next season.