Johnny Sexton still searching for Racing certainty
Ireland No 10 cuts a frustrated figure after lucrative Paris move
Published 10/01/2014 | 02:30
Just now France has become a jarring enigma to Jonathan Sexton. Where is the art, the joie de vivre? His day job is spent in a league pre-occupied with men built stiffer than steel beams, thundering into one another like fairground dodgems. Top 14 doesn't exactly blow kisses at the rugby world. It is attritional, relentless and unromantic as a jockstrap.
In November, Sexton said that Racing Metro were "nowhere near where we need to be" in that environment.
At the time, they sat five points off the lead, struggling palpably to assimilate more than a dozen new arrivals into something resembling a coherent match-day squad. The difficulties hadn't been entirely unforeseen, given the aggression of owner Jacky Lorenzetti's recruitment drive.
But adjustment seems to have since curdled into creeping confusion. Racing currently drag their heels in a mortifying eighth position (two shy of the Top 14 play-offs) and 12 points adrift of leaders, Clermont. Their Heineken Cup campaign was left all but corpsed by two Pool 4 defeats to Harlequins inside a week.
After the second of those losses, the club's directors cancelled plans to play a league clash with Toulon at Stade de France, insisting in a statement that the vast St Denis oval was reserved only for great teams "and we do not belong there".
Just before Christmas, the influential French rugby magazine 'Midi Olympique' listed what they called the 10 worst signings of the season. Four of those named were Racing Metro players.
Sexton, to be fair, was not among them, but, for one of the highest paid rugby players in the world, guilt by association must have felt unavoidable. All of which begs a question as to what will have been his honest response this week had Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien or Keith Earls phoned for advice on the realities of a lucrative rugby life in France.
For Sexton finds himself surrounded by ego and wealthy inertia in Paris, yet is expected to play rugby as precisioned as a transplant surgeon's scalpel work. It isn't working.
Already this season, he has played in 13 league games (starting 10) for Racing, an injury to their second-choice fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski forcing the hand of joint coaches, Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers. Sexton's enormous visibility, thus, gives him a central presence in what looks like a grand miscalculation by billionaire owner Lorenzetti.
Worse, he has found himself slightly isolated in the week-to-week scrutiny of Racing's summer imports because of Jamie Roberts' injury struggles and the fact that Dan Lydiate, the defensive apple of Warren Gatland's eye, has been largely out of favour with Labit and Travers.
Both Roberts and Lydiate made that 'Midi Olympique' list, as did props duo, Soane Tonga'uiha and Benjamin Fau, recruited from Northampton. Against that backdrop, Sexton's struggle to impose himself on an ever-changing backline has been all too obvious, Racing scoring fewer league tries (14) than all other Top 14 clubs bar rock-bottom Biarritz. Indeed, they currently sit four points closer to second from bottom, Bayonne, than they do from Clermont at the top.
This doesn't sit easy with Sexton, whose routine work-setting can veer from challenging to contrary. He demands standards of people and, right now, too many of those in the Racing Metro dressing-room do not appear to share that kind of professional pride. At Leinster, Sexton would have confronted that dynamic furiously. But, at Racing, he finds himself, as he put it in September, "walking around on egg-shells a little bit".
This was because, for someone so resolutely gentle and undemonstrative away from the game, Sexton bristles with competitive aggression at work.
Former Leinster colleagues say that, as a player, he is wired neither for compromise, nor patience. This is, perhaps, understandable for a man who spent his early professional career regarded as eighth choice for the seven starting back positions with his province.
Indeed, had Felipe Contepomi not been injured during the '09 Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster, it is even a moot point if Sexton would ever quite have been granted broad trust at Leinster.
Yet, that day in Croke Park, he earned it. And, three European crowns and a successful Lions tour later, he is now firmly established as the continent's pre-eminent No 10.
There is little doubt about his indispensability to Ireland either, with none of the supporting cast exactly offering Joe Schmidt compelling reasons for a change. But Sexton's fundamental honesty will leave him deeply frustrated, despite all the landscaped beauty of his home in the Parisien suburb of Chatenay-Malabry or the fattening of his bank balance.
He never did want to leave Leinster, yet felt forced out by the IRFU's refusal to grant him contractual parity with certain team-mates. Sexton wrote in his book last year that: "In short, if I was offered what other Irish players have been offered in the past and are currently earning, I would gladly stay."
Lorenzetti, by contrast, was handing him a winning lottery ticket. Two options, great oceans apart then. France became a financial no-brainer.
But he has already played more league games this season than he did in any of the last three Pro12 campaigns with Leinster and Lorenzetti, naturally, was unmoved by a request to release him from Top 14 duty the weekend of Ireland's November international against Samoa.
This is the fundamental crux facing Irish rugby today. The IRFU cannot compete with the sugar-daddies of France and, thus, men like Heaslip, O'Brien and Earls must weigh up the negatives of a more brutal, uncaring rugby environment against the stark positive of a big salary.
That quandary became the source of levity in Leinster's dressing-room this week with Rob Kearney's tweeted image of a smiling Heaslip, getting physio from four people at one time, accompanied by the caption "You won't get this sort of treatment in Toulon mate."
Fun and games then for all, but those faced by imminent, perhaps career-defining decisions.
Sexton did what he felt he had to do last year. "You miss everything about home," he reflected, not long after landing at Racing. "It's very different in Paris. At times, you think, God, I could live here forever. Other times, you think, God, I just want to go home. I'm still in that stage where there's a lot of ups and downs."
Four months on, the balance hasn't quite tilted as he would have hoped.