Sexton's return the hot topic of conversation at Pro12 gathering
Out-half’s imminent return will be a ‘huge boost’ to Celtic League
Although it seemed strange to launch a Celtic League competition in a country which houses precisely none of its competitors, it was also a tad surreal to realise that perhaps the Pro12’s greatest coup of all wasn’t in the same country either.
As a seemingly endless phalanx of media handlers and sponsors busied themselves with the business of back-slapping and glad-handling, with the big noises from Guinness and Sky mingling chirpily at Diageo’s global HQ in North London, surely the biggest advertisement for their new product was the decision by one of Europe’s biggest names to recommit to it.
Of course, Jonathan Sexton’s future hasn’t been finalised but even the nice men doling out the free Guinness yesterday knew that Ireland’s out-half will once more ply his trade with Leinster next season, a firm indication that, while the wages elsewhere may be keener, the grass may not always be greener.
“When you have players of his calibre deciding to leave the Top 14,” said Dragons’ captain Lee Byrne, once of Clermont, “it is certainly a good reflection of what the Pro12 has to offer and maybe an indication that it isn’t a soft touch anymore.”
Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip may not have been willing – or allowed – to comment directly on his erstwhile colleague’s movements but he did, at least, have an idea what to expect when the out-half returns to the Leinster dressing-room.
It will not just be Sexton’s reputation that will have been enlarged. “Yeah, he’s gotten a little bit chubbier from eating a couple of croissants!” conceded the newly-installed Leinster captain about the changes that have occurred since the departure of Sexton last year.
“Nah, obviously he’s gone off, he now has a little baby boy and so life is going to be very different for him. He’s definitely not learning a lot of French, anyway, because his French is absolutely appalling still. He’s kind of spoofing it on terms of... he’s just speaking in a French accent half the time, I think.
“But he’s in great form. His whole life has changed now, not because he’s moved to France but he’s got his own family now so there’s a very different dynamics to that. He’s a great competitor and he really drives the standards.
“Yeah, look, he’s got some really good buddies in our changing room. A lot of guys in our changing room, he’s played with them at all different age grades coming up, known them for 10 years, like.
“So they obviously stay in touch and chat to him. I give him the odd WhatsApp every so often to see how he’s getting on over there and it’s good to catch up with him when he’s home.
“He has been doing the family rounds, showing off his latest gift to the world. He already has a pair of boots on him and attempting to get him to kick balls and things like that but, you know, he’s going great.”
Ulster captain Rory Best wasn’t in the least bit surprised to hear of Sexton’s imminent return to these shores.
“Not in the slightest,” he said. “What you want is to have your players back with your provinces. It would be a great boost for the Pro12, the club, Ireland and in general. You want your best players here.
“To have world-class players playing in this league, then the better it is going to get. We have some fantastic internationals into it, to bring Johnny back into that next season it would be a big boost for the league.
“It might be a pain in the a*** for the rest of us, but that is the way it goes!”
Ulster may be looking for a head coach but Best smiles that they might demur in the unlikely event of the IRFU placing the out-half in Belfast.
“We probably wouldn’t want him! We have Paddy Jackson and Ian Humphreys. But it would be a major bonus to have Johnny playing here.”
Munster coach Anthony Foley, who couldn’t resist eyeing the player’s Kerry links, wouldn’t refuse the option either.
“I think it’s brilliant,” he enthused. “If he wanted to come back and live in Listowel we’d accommodate him as well. Look, you want to control your best and he’s one of the best players Ireland have at the moment.
“It’s having him under the guidelines of the IRFU and having the control and being able to manage his welfare is paramount going into the World Cup. If you want to be successful at the World Cup you need to look after your best players.”