Thursday 22 June 2017

Vincent Hogan: 'The abuse you get in Thomond playing for Leinster...'

Leinster and Ireland out-half Jonny sexton, a Guinness rugby ambassador, is keen to enjoy more big days at the Aviva Stadium for both province and country. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster and Ireland out-half Jonny sexton, a Guinness rugby ambassador, is keen to enjoy more big days at the Aviva Stadium for both province and country. Photo: Sportsfile

SOME rooms you invite yourself straight into, some you don't. On Sunday evening, it felt natural for Jonny Sexton to push open a door in the belly of the new Lansdowne and tip-toe across Argentinian towels and discarded bandages.

He wanted their captain's jersey and didn't doubt that he would get it.

One day he hopes to own a house of his own in Dublin and, if there are any framed shirts to be hung on the wall, one will be a Puma's.

He'd considered texting Felipe Contepomi before the game, but worried that it might seem inappropriate, for there was a Test match to be played.

Still, a few of the Leinster players had met up with their old friend for coffee and he knew he'd have been comfortable joining the company. Then, on Saturday, his girlfriend texted to say that Contepomi had said some kind things about him in a newspaper interview.

"And I'm thinking he's such a nice guy, but I have to play against him ... " smiles Sexton in recall.

So they went to work, then sought one another out only when it was over, slipping down the tunnel, arm in arm.

What did the embrace signify? Friendship, for sure. A sense of brotherhood? Absolutely.

But, for Sexton, maybe more. He tells a story of the first time rugby really broke his heart.

After Ireland's World Cup debacle of '07, Eddie O'Sullivan drafted in some new faces for the '08 Six Nations, among them a 22-year-old Sexton.

The word was that he would be on the bench as Ronan O'Gara's understudy and, most likely, get some game-time.

Then Leinster went to Welford Road in the Heineken Cup and, coming off the bench, Sexton's first tackle on a Leicester jersey left him with a broken thumb. End of his Six Nations.

Ireland had been due to meet up the following morning, but, instead, he flew home to an operation. Inconsolable.

Contepomi rang within 24 hours of surgery. He was, himself, in camp with Argentina, but felt the kid could probably do with the call. And a lot of what he said, Jonny Sexton did not want to hear.

"Maybe you're not ready anyway!"

"Hold on a minute, I am ready!"

The gist of Contepomi's message was that international rugby could be a brutal and unforgiving domain. That, for an out-half especially, the scrutiny would sometimes fly right off the Richter Scale.

"Just make sure you're ready when the next opportunity comes," he said.

Then he finished with a line that Sexton has never forgotten. "Listen, it might not be the best time to get your call-up anyway!".

Jonny is chuckling at the memory now. "Must have been psychic," he laughs.

For Ireland -- of course -- endured a troubled Six Nations, leading to O'Sullivan's departure.

Jonny says he won't ever forget that phone-call. With Leinster, it was always Contepomi's way to find time for the younger players, but, that morning in '08, his thoughtfulness made a difference.

So, the Puma captain's jersey held a particular currency last Sunday night. Dan Carter's the week before? Sexton would have liked that too, but thought better of pursuing it. Things tend to be different with the All Blacks.

In recent times, some Irish players have been turned away from New Zealand changing-rooms a little too abruptly for their liking. Sexton has never spoken to Carter and has no reason to believe that he might have been in any way unpleasant. But he wasn't running the risk of a cursory dismissal.

"I just felt it was up to him if he wanted to do it (swap jersies)," he says now.

"I wasn't going to go in only for him to say 'No, I have an Irish one already'. That seems to happen a little bit when Ireland play New Zealand. There's that attitude.

"So, I just wasn't putting myself in that position."

Turning points and recognition

HE drove to Listowel straight from the Aviva to spend Monday with his grandfather.

John Sexton is in his 80s now and, though unwell, remains stridently young in mind and spirit. The drive was fraught at times, but what burden is an inconvenient journey? Family is family.

Jonny likes to keep emotion at arms' length on big rugby days, but he remembers driving to Croke Park for that momentous Heineken Cup semi-final that would change the course of his career, if not his life.

The bus was passing Connolly Station and there, standing outside the pub under the railway bridge, he caught a glimpse of his father, Gerry.

There was a group of them, including his godfather, Billy Keane. Already, he'd spotted some old school friends in the street and, momentarily, the weight of the day brought a little sting to the eye. And still, he knew nothing of what it would hold for him.

When Contepomi's knee buckled, his first thought was 'Oh s**t!'

Sitting on the bench, he'd really only had eyes for two players. Sexton knew he would see action only if either blue 10 or 12 hit trouble. Contepomi or Gordon D'Arcy. Beyond them, he saw nobody.

So he jumped to his feet and, heart racing, got ready to change how the world might see him. Straight in to take a penalty. The kick? Even now, he grows queasy at the memory.

Eighty two thousand people squinting and second-guessing. Johnny O'Hagan arriving with the tee.

"What's that?" asked Sexton.

"Your tee."

"No, it's not."

"It is."

"Are you being serious?"

"What's wrong with it?"

"Jesus Johnny, get me my proper tee."

Referee, Nigel Owens, was mercifully re-assuring. "Take your time," he told them. So O'Hagan loped away to get Sexton the proper equipment.

"I was very nervous," he recalls now. "Johnny had brought me this little plastic thing. It was like a gimmick tee that maybe the Heineken Cup people were using beforehand. The only thing it had in common with my own tee was it was green.

"So, I'm standing there and I haven't a clue where he's got it from. Johnny has a bandy ankle and he goes off hobbling. Probably takes him the guts of a minute to get my tee, another minute to think about what I had to do (laughing).

"I'd say what he'd brought me wasn't even a legitimate tee. And the difference can be huge. When the kick eventually went over, it wasn't so much a weight off my shoulders as the thought 'thank God, I'm in this game now.'"

Was that minute the making of Jonny Sexton?

For convenience sake, it's an appealing conclusion. Leinster devoured Munster that day and would go on to become European Champions. Within six months, Jonny was picked ahead of Ronan O'Gara for a November Test against South Africa.

From that day in Dublin, it is as if he has not made a backward glance.

Yet, Sexton traces a different turning point in his career. Two years ago, he was "very low, depressed probably" facing into Christmas.

He'd lost his place in the Leinster match-day 22 and was back playing AIL with St Mary's. It was a moot point if Michael Cheika would ever have use for him again.

Actually, the day Leinster qualified for the Heineken Cup knock-out stages by beating Edinburgh at the RDS, Sexton was playing AIL against Old Belvedere.

The experience was maybe not entirely what people might have imagined it to be.

"It was obviously a hugely frustrating time," he recalls now. "You learn a lot about people around you when you're going through that kind of stuff. People who stand by you and those who jump on the bandwagon. You learn a lot about yourself.

"At the time, Leinster had been going through a lot of changes. We'd brought in new players. CJ (Van der Linde) and Rocky (Elsom) came in after the Tri Nations and didn't really know what was going on.

"We were struggling a lot. I had been playing 10 and I felt, not that I was being made a scapegoat, but that I was taking a lot of the blame for the poor performances.

"So, I went back to Marys and it was brilliant. I knew all the lads from school. My brother (Mark) was on the team.

"I'd been putting a lot of pressure on myself with Leinster. I was over-thinking things.

"Now I just started doing things naturally again. Playing my own game.

"And I got a bit of form back."

Mary's beat Shannon for the first time in years and Sexton's form was sufficient for Declan Kidney to pick him ahead of Ian Humphreys for an 'A' international against Scotland that February.

Ireland won, their out-half scored 20 points and Cheika left, suitably impressed.

That was the turning point.

Rivalry and respect

PEOPLE pick at his relationship with O'Gara now, as if it's a suspect package trailing wires.

They have never been bosom buddies and, out of that Croke Park tumult, came a picture that probably stalks Sexton to this day.

Leinster have just scored a try and, as the celebrations erupt, there is their out-half, leaning aggressively in the direction of his opposite number.

What was he saying to Ronan O'Gara? Nothing as it happens.

Jonny Sexton was just shouting an incoherent shout that didn't contain a single word. It was a heat-of-the-moment eruption, gone by the time he squared up to the conversion. If only.

"I couldn't believe it," he says now of the fall-out. "If someone had said to me: 'This is going to be on the front-page of the paper tomorrow', I obviously wouldn't have done it. But it's in the heat of battle. You know, things go on ... and previous games ... stuff said."

Some weeks earlier, he'd been cited for a kick on Lifeimi Mafi during a Magners League game at Thomond Park and -- as he puts it -- "words were said" in the aftermath. Sometimes, well, stuff piles up in the subconscious. "Do I regret it? I probably do," says Sexton. "Because people consider it unsportsmanlike. My mum, you know, she was ringing me. Giving out to me. And I'm not happy about it, but, you know, what happens happens.

"If you could take it back, you probably would because of the hassle. The abuse that you get down in Thomond playing for Leinster now ... the Munster fans don't forget too easily. They obviously look after their own, which is fair enough.

"So, they let me know about it every time I go down there. It's tough. And maybe it added to the whole thing that I was in contention to play for Ireland the following season. Maybe that just made the rivalry more than it actually was.

"Now all of Munster are going to say 'O'Gara should be playing' and all of Leinster will say that I should be. But I think it's wrong if I'm playing that the Munster fans won't cheer for you or, if he's playing, the Leinster fans will be saying 'bring on Sexton.'

"Whoever gets the jersey should get the support of all of Ireland. That's the one bad thing that's come out of the whole rivalry. "And I suppose the picture didn't help."

He describes his relationship with O'Gara today as "good," yet doesn't deny that that moment created tension.

"Maybe a little," Sexton concedes. "I always had huge respect for him, I mean over 100 caps and all that he has achieved with Munster. And I still had that respect at that moment, though it's not what I portrayed. Maybe it wasn't a respectful thing. Maybe he considered it disrespectful. That's fine. But it was in the heat of the moment.

"You know, we get on quite well now. We obviously spend a lot of time together in camp with Ireland.

"Obviously, every Monday or Tuesday, there's the question of selection and it's tough for maybe a day.

"Either one of you is walking on egg-shells. But it's fine. Well, it's forgotten about on my part. Maybe I can't speak for him (smiling).

"But, going back to that picture, if everything that was said in Munster-Leinster games, or everything that was done, was examined closely, no Munster player would talk to any Leinster player and vice versa.

"Because the stuff that goes on ... you know they're the most physical, aggressive games. A lot happens in them and you just forget about it after the final whistle."

In this, he is drawn especially to Paul O'Connell's likening of it to familial angst. As the Munster man put it: "The one person you never want to lose to is your brother."

Character and development

HE refuses to see himself as the incumbent now, despite starting three of Ireland's four November Tests. Yet, hindsight allows him glimpse the wisdom of Contepomi's counsel. At 25, Sexton is maybe better armed for the hard moments than he could ever have been in '08.

When O'Gara materialised on the Croke Park touch-line last March, just as Ireland were awarded a penalty against Scotland, it led to a -- momentarily -- excruciating (and accidental) stand-off.

Who would take it?

Eventually, Sexton kicked the goal and came off the pitch to what felt like a mix of admiring and sympathetic applause. Horrendous.

The following day, Denis Hickie texted him. He was one of few. "People probably didn't want to go near me because I was so p****d off about what had happened," recalls Jonny. "But Denis just said that the moment would stand to me, that the character I had shown was outstanding.

"And, looking back, it was a big moment for me, to do that under that kind of pressure. I ran back for the kick-off as well, to see if maybe I might be left on for a few more minutes (laughing). I don't know if Deccie appreciated that!"

He reminds you that he is just 11 caps into an international career and it's probably no harm that he does. For, if he has travelled far these past 18 months, it is not even close to the distance that he aspires to.

Already, he has faced all the giants of the southern hemisphere and, from each one, taken something. Carter, he describes as "a class act", yet he is keen too to avoid mythologising the New Zealander.

"At times against Wales last weekend, he looked like he was having a poor game, then -- suddenly -- he just comes alive," says Sexton. "That's the difference, I suppose. Does he pass better than other out-halves? Not necessarily. Kick better? Not necessarily. He's just got that consistency."

Away from the game, Sexton is private, soft-spoken and even mildly reticent. Celebrity holds little draw for him. He plays golf when time allows (he's a member of Ballybunion) and, come summer, takes an interest in Dublin footballers.

He's been friends with Bernard Brogan since their teens and felt certain last August that the Dubs were about to claim the Sam Maguire. "I was sure of it," he remembers.

"I kept drawing comparisons to when we won the Heineken Cup. A few poor results in early season, then finding their form. Even down to playing Cork in the semi-final. Blue against red. And I'm thinking 'This is a carbon copy ... '"

It didn't happen. No matter, some day soon it may. Use the bad days as an education and, eventually, fate has a way of balancing things.

Which was, of course, Contepomi's essential promise to his young, heartbroken team-mate two years ago. A promise since made good.

Guinness is a proud partner of Leinster Rugby. Fans can log onto the Guinness Rugby Supporters Facebook Page -- www.Facebook.com/GuinnessRugbyIreland -- for all the latest news and updates from inside the Leinster camp with Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip.

Guinness is also offering fans the chance to win tickets for all Leinster's home games and signed merchandise.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport