Sport Rugby

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Jonathan Sexton - The return of the king

Paul Kimmage

Published 10/11/2013 | 01:00

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A few years ago, I had dinner with a friend who was convinced he had witnessed the end of Jonathan Sexton. It happened on a freezing winter's evening in November 2003 after a schools interprovincial at Ravenhill. Sexton was 17 years old and had long been proclaimed as the next 'big thing' in Irish rugby but when the going had got tough against Ulster that evening, he had failed to show.

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But the thing that surprised most was his demeanour in the dressing room; there was no bark, no bite, no sign of a pulse. He sat, staring at the tiles as Father Joe Gough, the Leinster coach, addressed the team.

"Some of you will go further and achieve great things with Leinster and Ireland," he announced, "but for a lot of you, this is as far as it will go. You might play for university before going on to new careers but never forget this moment and what you've achieved – there are thousands of people who will never do what you've done."

Gough wasn't looking at Sexton when he delivered the obituary but he might have been, because that was the consensus of those who had witnessed the scene on the journey home.

"Rob Kearney?"

"Yeah."

"Devin Toner?"

Jonathan Sexton
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland

"Perhaps."

Jonathan Sexton?

"No, this kid was not going to make it."

So it was a surprise, six years later, when he came off the bench against Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park and, in his first act, slotted a 30-metre penalty like he was Jonny Wilkinson.

And it was a surprise, two years after that, when it was Sexton who delivered the half-time speech that ignited Leinster in Cardiff when they came back from the dead to beat Northampton in the final of the Heineken Cup: "Listen, we were ten points down to Toulouse, and we came back! And they weren't half the team these guys are! This will be remembered forever."

(Okay, so he got it arseways but they knew what he meant.)

But the biggest surprise – no, the absolute astonishment – is two years after that, and a warm, September afternoon at the Racing Metro training ground in Paris. Is this really Ronan O'Gara we see striding towards us? It most certainly is. Has he just nodded towards Sexton on the training ground and said what I just think he has said? He most certainly has.

So you scramble for a pen and immediately scribble those seven words down because you know that he will not want them repeated; and because you know that, even in his worst nightmare, it is not something O'Gara would ever have imagined he would say, and will probably take to his grave. But it's there, in black ink, scribbled on the Novotel post-it: "So, you've come to interview the King?"

What a tribute to Sexton. And what a theme for the interview.

How did Jonathan Sexton become the King?

* * * * *

THEY CALLED HIM HANK

Q: What did you make of his reaction to O'Gara in that Heineken Cup semi-final in '09?

A: I don't know where that came from. That's Johnny . . . I've had it, well, maybe not that, but I've had different forms of that temperament from him over the years. He throws the toys out of the cot sometimes and is very . . . what you see is what you get.

Q: It's all out there.

A: Yeah. I've had rows with Johnny that have almost come to blows. He's very stubborn, very stubborn, and that's what gives him his desire and his drive. And the thing is, he encourages that. He says, "It's good to argue." And I say, "Yeah, arguing is fine but shouting matches on the pitch don't do anyone any good".

Q: When have you almost come to blows?

A: We had a big one the week of the English match in 2011. We almost came to blows in training. We were shouting at each other: 'I'll knock the head off you'. 'Well come on then'.

Q. What was the basis of the row?

A: I ran a line that I shouldn't have or I didn't do something that he wanted me to do and he had a cut off me and I had a cut back. And that's the thing, Johnny will rarely back down. If he has a go and you come back at him, he'll come over the top again. The thing with Johnny is, and he has said this to me, 75 per cent of the time he is right and the other 25 per cent he will argue that he's right. And when he's wrong he won't say anything, he'll just walk away.

– An interview with Brian O'Driscoll

It's a Friday afternoon and he is sitting in his apartment in the Parisien suburb of Chatenay-Malabry. Fifty-nine days have passed since he arrived at Racing Metro and he is learning every day.

The language is tricky. He hasn't yet met a Frenchman who talks like the textbook.

"C'est un plaisir de vous rencontrer monsieur?"

Not in these parts sonny.

And kissing his team-mates – 'la bise' – at training every morning continues to be a strain. His heating boiler, 'le chaudiere', has broken down but he has called 'le plombier'. And the locals, 'les Parisiens', are a taste he's still trying to acquire.

We begin the interview with a cup of tea – 'le Barry's bien sur' – and he is sitting back now, listening to his friend, Brian O'Driscoll.

PK: Let's start with a reminder of what you've just heard: "75 per cent of the time he is right and the other 25 per cent he will argue that he's right."

JS: (Laughs) He's the same. And as I've said to him, that's what an argument is. You are not going to argue about something you agree on.

PK: But that doesn't mean you don't concede when you're not right?

JS: Yeah.

PK: So you do concede?

JS: Yeah, 25 per cent of the time. And I always end up apologising. Our coach at St Mary's, Peter Smith, used to call me Hank – the guy (Jim Carrey) from Me, Myself and Irene with the split personality. I get on the training field or anything competitive and it just takes over. And then, once I'm finished I'm like 'Ahh! Why did I say that?' I always worry about what I've said when I've gone home. Laura always knows when I've had a scrap with someone in training.

PK: She does?

JS: Yeah, I'll come home and I'll be in a quiet mood, thinking about it and she'll go: 'Who were you arguing with today?'

PK: And that's interesting because I've had a strong sense of that – the other Johnny – since I've sat down with you. You seem quite reserved by nature?

JS: Maybe, I wouldn't be reserved in terms of when I get to know people, or with the lads. I wouldn't be really quiet. But I've been with Laura since we were teenagers, so I'd probably just say I was normal rather than reserved. Like I'm not on Twitter or Facebook or anything, I just don't get that. That's just not me. It's like giving the world your phone number.

PK: And when you say 'it's not me?'

JS: Maybe it's just the position that I play in. Or maybe it stems from the early days and the fact that I didn't make it straight away . . . you're young and you're competing with someone like Rog who's admired by everyone in the country, but also by especially Munster. So when you get picked and you're playing for Ireland, and half the country don't want you playing for Ireland, you develop this sort of barrier where you don't want opinion. You're trying to stay away from opinion because that was one of the things that made it difficult to play for Ireland for a while. I've only played for Ireland maybe 36 times but I've only been comfortable in the last five or six caps, which is crazy.

PK: And you're sensitive.

JS: Everyone is sensitive.

PK: Yes, but some more than others, some develop thick skins. I'd say Rog has a thick skin. I'd say you're more sensitive than him.

JS: No.

PK: You don't agree.

JS: Well, like I said, I think every sportsman is sensitive. You want everyone to appreciate what you do, and you want everyone to like you, or at least like something about you. It's how it affects you. I've seen guys on the morning of an international, sitting there and reading papers back-to-front. They are reading about the game (the previews) and about themselves and the head-to-heads and they could be getting slated but it doesn't seem to bother them. But for me, with the kicking and needing my head to be in the right place, I try to stay away from what's written in the press. But someone like Brian wouldn't bat an eyelid.

PK: Take me back to the start. I know that you're the eldest of four and that you grew up in Rathgar; I know your dad (Jerry) is from Listowel and played rugby for Ireland Schools; I know your uncle (Willie) has three Ireland caps and that you're maternal grandfather (John Nestor) was an Irish international amateur golfer. Tell me about growing up.

JS: We were pretty normal, both of our parents worked. Dad was an accountant. Mum (Clare) worked in the hairdressers in Rathgar and then eventually bought it and took it over. I shared a room with both my brothers so it was a bit of a madhouse. And our house backed into a tennis club out the back, so we were forever out the back gate. Dad used to come home from work and give a whistle out the back garden and we'd (hop) over the wall and come home for dinner. And we'd spend the summers with our cousins in Ballybunion on the beach or playing pitch and putt or golf.

PK: Where does character come from in terms of your make-up?

JS: I don't know, my mum tells me I'm like her dad, who had a bit of a temper and wasn't afraid to tell people what he thought. But I think people liked him – or they either loved him or hated him. And I'd probably be similar enough to my dad. I think you pick up bits from everyone. I have bits of my mum, bits of my dad, my granddads . . .

PK: I'm interested once again that 'telling people what you thought' is the trait you've picked out. Because it's an unusual trait isn't it, to speak your mind?

JS: Yeah and I probably wish I didn't do it but I find it hard to bite my tongue.

PK: When did it start?

JS: I don't know.

PK: Did it start in school? 'I'm sorry sir, that's crap. Rub it off the blackboard.' Can you remember a moment as a kid when you might have thought, 'Why didn't I keep my mouth shut?'

JS: Yeah, probably.

PK: What was the moment?

JS: I don't know but I'd say even coaches that coached me when I was seven or eight would have said I was (challenging). I'd like to think it was a competitive thing – that I want to win. And I'm lucky that I've played with guys who are similar to me.

PK: But you say it was always there?

JS: I would say so, yeah.

PK: Because I was told an interesting story and I wanted to bounce it off you. You played a Leinster schools game at Ravenhill in 2003?

JS: Yeah.

PK: What happened?

JS: I don't know. We were probably thumped.

PK: It doesn't stand out?

JS: No.

PK: You lose a dour game and go into the changing room. Joe Gough makes a speech and you sit there without saying a word. No giving out. No shouting. And nobody who watched you that night would have said: 'This is a guy who's going to start three Tests for the Lions.'

JS: I probably wasn't comfortable in the environment.

PK: Okay, well what about later because I've asked Brian about this: 'At what stage did you become aware of this guy at Leinster?' And he didn't have any sense of this strong-willed character until you were actually on the team.

JS: Yeah, but I'm hardly going to be telling Brian what to do when I am watching Leinster train. It was the same when I started with Ireland – I wasn't comfortable with the Munster lads. Like, I remember getting picked for Ireland and you see the Munster players talking with Rog, or maybe tapping him on the back: "Hard luck. It's terrible (you weren't picked)." And it's hard to then go and be yourself when you think the other guys are . . . does that make sense?

PK: Yes it does.

JS: When you are playing with guys from other schools that you don't know, and have no relationship with, it's hard. But I think I've learnt over the years how to manage it. I'm in a new environment here; I was in a new environment with the Lions.

PK: It didn't stop you shouting at the Lions?

JS: No, because that's a lesson I've learned over the years: you have to be yourself.

PK: When did you learn the lesson?

JS: In my early Ireland days. I came into a settled team and the one change was me in for Rog. But I remember, even with Brian, with Leinster he was telling me, 'You've got to just calm down at times'. And a week later with Ireland it would be, 'You've got to be more like you are with Leinster'. So I'd say to him, 'You're some contradictory bollox'. He wanted me to be the way I am but I needed to control it a little bit. And I knew that, and he was right, but at the same time you need to be comfortable in the environment that you are in.

PK: Before you start shouting at people?

JS: Well, no but . . .

PK: I'm joking.

JS: No, but I said it in the book. It's easier to have a go at your best mate because you know he is still going to be your best mate afterwards. And I wasn't the only one at Leinster; the team spent half the time fighting with each other and that's why we were successful.

* * * * *

HERE'S JOHNNY

An outhalf has to have a relationship with everyone in the squad, in different ways from John Hayes to Brian Carney, with different jokes for different lads. But I would have avoided Johnny and he would have avoided me. I had my same spot on the bus all the time with the same fellas at the back – Brian, Paulie, Rob – and Johnny was nowhere to be seen, up at the front on the left.

Unguarded: Ronan O'Gara

PK: Talk to me about your ambitions as a boy. I've read that as a 14-year-old you walked into Billy Keane's pub and asked him where he was going to hang your first Ireland jersey?

JS: Do you know Billy?

PK: I know of him.

JS: Billy is my godfather and my dad's best friend. They lived next to each other on William Street in Listowel, so that's what the connection was. We were in the pub one day and we were talking and he has all sorts of jerseys, Kerry, Bective Rangers, that people have given him. And I just said, 'If I played for Ireland would you put the jersey up?' And he said, 'Yeah.'

PK: So it was 'if' I play for Ireland not 'when?'

JS: If.

PK: What about Billy's dad?

JS: John B? Yeah. I would have obviously known John B well growing up but again, he was always Billy's dad to me. I knew he was a writer but never appreciated how good he was or how big he was.

PK: Have you read any of his stuff?

JS: Not too much. I've seen The Field and some other plays and stuff but I must go and do a bit more. I've read too much of Billy's stuff (laughs). I'd be scarred enough from that to go and read John B.

PK: Your parents split during your early teens. What impact did it have?

JS: I think you throw yourself into things that take your mind from other things. It can go one or two ways – you can cause trouble and try and get attention or you can go the other way, and turn in on yourself. Or throw your thoughts into everything else, so maybe there was a bit of that. It's hard to know, I've never asked.

PK: What your parents saw?

JS: No. And it's hard to know sometimes why you're motivated and sometimes you wish you didn't care so much about X and Y and doing well. Sometimes you see lads and they can just forget about stuff, they can lose a game and it doesn't linger.

PK: But that wasn't you?

JS: Yeah, but I don't know why. It's hard to know why.

PK: Maybe it's just the way you're wired?

JS: Exactly. You can look at all the outside things, which obviously I think is true. It's the environment that you grow up in. You don't lick it off a stone.

PK: Tell me about Laura (his wife)?

JS: We met when we were really young and were friends for ages. Initially, it was boyfriend and girlfriend but then we went our separate ways for a couple of years and got back together when we were 15. And we've been together ever since. I've never played a serious rugby match without Laura; she has been there for all of my career. It's not everyone's cup of tea but I think it's great that someone knows you so well and has been through the ups and downs. On the Lions tour Andy Farrell, Owen's dad, was telling me that Andy and his wife, Colleen, had Owen when they were 15. But they were together since they are 14 and Owen is, what, 23 now?

PK: And are they still together?

JS: Yeah, and it's cool. At least I think it's cool but like I said, it's not for everyone. Some people would rather go out and meet different people for their teenage years and then settle down, but it just happened the way it did.

PK: You mentioned the ups and downs. You were making good progress at Leinster and then your career suddenly stalled?

JS: We won the Magners League in 2008 and I would have played a lot at 10. I probably played 80 per cent of the games that season because I was the fourth-choice midfield option when Brian or Gordon D'Arcy or Felipe Contepomi was injured and I would have viewed that as a breakthrough year for me. But a year after that (Isa) Nacewa came in and I was back to third-choice 10, never mind third-choice midfielder. I wanted to take that next step; I wanted to become a Heineken Cup player, I wanted to become an international, but I was just trying too hard. I was trying to do things that Felipe does or Isa Nacewa does playing outhalf and trying to be something I was not. So I went back (to the All-Ireland League) and played for Mary's.

PK: Was that disheartening?

JS: It killed me.

PK: Did you ever consider giving up?

JS: I came close to leaving Leinster but I never came close to giving up. I remember having a chat with Bernard Jackman around Christmas and he said, 'Listen, you have to be patient'. I think a lot of the players would have seen I had some value and I remember getting calls from Shane (Horgan) and Leo (Cullen) and they urged me to give it another turn. And then I got the big break in front of 85,000 people at Croke Park and that first kick . . . my God! I have never felt as nervous.

PK: Really?

JS: Johnny O'Hagan, one of my dad's closest friends, and someone I have known since I was a baby, brings the tee out and he brings the wrong one. I was tempted to put it down and just give it a lash but I said, 'No, that's not my tee'. He said, 'I don't know where your tee is'. I said, 'Go and find it. I'm not taking the kick until you get my tee'. So eventually it comes out but I had to stand there for two or three minutes.

PK: That takes tremendous character.

JS: What? To do that?

PK: Yeah.

JS: (Laughs) Yeah, but you try and kick with the wrong tee in front of 85,000.

PK: Who were the rocks, Jonathan, during that period when it was hard?

JS: Obviously Laura, my parents, and my brothers and sister. And obviously a few of my colleagues and friends but they don't see how upset you are when you go home. You put on a brave face but they don't know what you are going through.

PK: When did you hit rock bottom?

JS: There was two – that period when I was in and then out at Leinster and the 2011 World Cup – that was definitely a tournament when I developed another layer of thick skin. I went there with such high expectations but sometimes you don't get rewarded for the hard work you put in and that World Cup was a massive low point, and definitely a big regret. You can point to 100 things . . . against USA, I kicked a couple of really good kicks and the wind just made them miss by an inch. And then I got the nod against Australia on a blustery night at Eden Park. It was a big debating point again that maybe O'Gara should have been in and there's always that sense from other players after you've had a bad night with the boot.

PK: You sense it?

JS: You do, yeah.

PK: Really?

JS: These guys have played with Rog for ten years and you're the new kid. I got a drop goal and was two-from-four from the kicks on a tough night and then, at half time – sorry I was one-from-three – at half-time I remember hearing Declan – he obviously didn't see me – asking the kicking coach: 'Do we have to make a change?' And the kicking coach said, 'We'll give him one more' and I was like, 'One more! Jeeze!'

PK: Who was the kicking coach?

JS: Mark Tainton. They obviously didn't think I was anywhere near them. But I remember hearing that and it fired me up and I thought, 'I'm going to nail the next one'. And I did, I absolutely nailed it and I thought, 'That's going to be the turning point'. Then I got another penalty, a hard one, and the wind took it at the last minute and it hit the post. Gordon D'Arcy went off injured and O'Gara came on and I went to the centre but he took over the kicks. The post made the difference from being a hero to being dejected and getting dropped for Rog.

PK: And then you have to listen to him telling everyone that he should have been in the team?

JS: Yeah, that hurt as well. I felt it was disrespectful to me but we didn't have the best relationship at that time.

PK: And the man who tells it as it is . . . Why didn't you knock on O'Gara's door and rip the arse out of him for what he had said on TV?

JS: Well, it wouldn't have been good for the team, would it? It would have looked like sour grapes.

PK: But you had right on your side?

JS: Yeah, I do agree, and I was tempted and our relationship probably . . . I probably took it out in other ways. I was probably pissed off with the whole squad but to be honest, I was so down about myself at that stage that I didn't have the drive (to confront him) in me. It would be different now if another rival came out and said that. I'd tell him to shut up and do his talking on the pitch.

PK: And that was the final hurdle in your transition to the real deal?

JS: Yeah, the season after the World Cup was good for me. We won another Heineken Cup with Leinster and I was nominated for European Player of the Year with Rob (Kearney).

PK: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?

JS: Definitely.

* * * * *

RETURN OF THE KING

It's a wet Wednesday evening in Dublin. He leads me from his car to the door of his apartment block and is copped by a delivery man.

"It's you, isn't it?"

(Sexton looks at him blankly.)

"Johnny Sexton?

"Yeah."

"Knew it was you . . . fair play to yeh."

"Thanks."

Laura welcomes him home. We sit down with a cup of tea and I hand him a copy of Unguarded, O'Gara's just-published memoir. "That's great," he laughs. "I'll take of photo of it and send it to him."

PK: Did you read the extracts the other day?

JS: Yeah.

PK: What did you think?

JS: Emm, it's fairly honest in terms of how we were at the start. It was just awkward, but it's going to be awkward when you've had a falling out. But he's an honest guy, in fairness. He says it like it is. And we're over it now.

PK: So how have you been? The last time I spoke to you in Paris, you were dreading the publication of the extracts for your own book?

JS: Yeah, it was an awkward week wondering how people were going to react to it, because these are things and thoughts I've had a year ago, so for me it's old news. And it's strange to read how you felt back then, now that things have changed.

PK: What has changed?

JS: I'm at a new club now and have settled in Paris and it feels like a long time since I was playing for Leinster because so much has happened since.

PK: And have you settled in?

JS: Yeah, I've settled into the life and the apartment and Laura has settled in well. So now it's just about settling into the rugby stuff. We are nowhere near where we need to be. We are five points off first place but we've been quite inconsistent and have had a lot of injuries to important players, so that's made things a bit difficult.

PK: How's the French going?

JS: It's getting better but you can misunderstand one word and the simplest things break down and it can change the whole game plan, especially in my situation. I remember (in one game) they were using the word 'occupation'. They were just shouting and shouting and shouting it and I just thought it was another word for possession but it's actually field position, so it's the opposite, it's about getting the ball into their half. So I went out in the second half and started running everything and the coaches were all looking at me. (Laughs)

PK: When was that?

JS: That was about six weeks ago but it's a lesson learnt and next time I'll know what to do.

PK: How did you feel about coming home?

JS: It was exciting. I was really excited to see all the lads again and play with them. A bit nervous as well.

PK: What were the nerves?

JS: Well, obviously your relationships change with people when you're not their team-mate anymore. It's a different dynamic coming in, but after a few days together, it's back to old times. I'm enjoying the crack and taking plenty of stick.

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