Thursday 27 July 2017

Billy Keane: New Zealand hold no fear for Sexton after surviving the mannequin challenge

British and Irish Lions players, from left, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray during the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
British and Irish Lions players, from left, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray during the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

My mam said to me, not long before she died, that one morning when I was an even smaller small boy than I am now, I told her there were pictures on my pillow.

Jonathan Sexton's pictures on his pillow were all about rugby. And yes sometimes dreams do come true, if you try hard enough.

We sent Jonathan a picture, from home, of a small, surreal creature, no bigger than a tall Hobbit. Martin the Mannequin stood sentinel on his nana's shop window for over 40 years and he didn't age a day. Nana Brenda and uncle John watched the Lions beat the All Blacks on Saturday. They stood in for the picture with Martin. Jonathan was very wary of Martin when he was a kid. He was scared of Martin.

Nana Brenda prays like mad before every game. I tried to explain that she must pray for a Lions' win and not just for her grandson to come home safe. Brenda opens her shop every morning. They say you should never disclose a lady's age. But we'll give you a clue, in Bingo - two fat ladies. Brenda is slim, fit and hardy. She passed it on.

Fear

Her grandson faced up to the All Blacks, and as usual there was no fear or backing down. Martin wasn't playing. The ten didn't miss a single tackle and he knew where the gaps were to be found. But most of all Sexton bossed his team into the right places and they trusted in his know-how.

Yet just a few days before the equalising test the young lad told us he wasn't sure if he would start. The body had healed up. "I'm ready," he said. But he worried.

Jonathan's wife Laura is minding their two kids. She is pretty, smart and honest. Laura backs up her husband. It was Luca's birthday and his Dad was away in New Zealand. Pro-rugby is not all about laps of honour and high fives. The Lion misses his wife and cubs so much and they miss him.

Jonathan Sexton’s nana Brenda, uncle John, godfather Billy Keane and Martin the Mannequin celebrate the Lions’ victory on Saturday in Brenda’s shop
Jonathan Sexton’s nana Brenda, uncle John, godfather Billy Keane and Martin the Mannequin celebrate the Lions’ victory on Saturday in Brenda’s shop

Jonathan's mother Clare went back to styling hair in her salon on Orwell Road immediately after the game. She too works hard and her clients come back time and again. All these loving people are so inextricably linked to the playing of a game.

Jonathan's pal Owen Farrell works with Dad Andy, who is a Lions' coach. Andy must have nearly died when his young lad faced up to that last kick with just two minutes left on the clock. Being the parent of a kicker is like watching your son dispose of bombs every ten or 12 minutes. Andy has been a Dad since he was 16. He is greatly respected by the players and his openness has helped many young people through teenage pregnancy.

What if his boy missed? Every time I see a Rice Krispie bun I get emotional over an U-12's game my team lost 18 years ago. The lads were mad for Rice Krispie buns and red lemonade. They'd probably get banned now for breaking drug-testing rules. But Owen Farrell's dream came true. He won The Test. Happy memories.

Parents of big stars often wonder if their son would have had an easier life if he was playing a bit of club rugby, for fun, with the third D's', which is not a Dublin bus route, but a team far removed from the first XV. There's no fun playing in the actual match itself at the highest level. The fun comes in training with your pals and the banter of the changing rooms. Joy comes after matches, but not during.

There won't be much fun in The Sonny Bill Williams' house this weekend. He was rightly red carded. Sonny Bill is a gentleman who has time for everyone but he was well out of order. Times were tough enough when he was growing up. Sonny Bill turned pro to "get his mother a house" and he did. Some mother's son and a good son is Sonny Bill.

The Barretts are dairy farmers, good people, who will console their boy Beaudy who was tough enough to play Gaelic football in Meath. He missed a few kicks on a rainy night. Jonathan Sexton knows all about missed kicks but the top players just move on. Young Beaudy will rise again but Sonny Bill will now miss the final test after his four-week ban was confirmed. Sean O'Brien is from the tillage lands of Tullow and avoided suspension after being cleared of dangerous play.

The New Zealand Flock picked on Warren Gatland. He made allegations of foul play against the All Blacks. The clown front page was an invitation to ostracise. Gatland always had courage. He is his own man but no man is an island. His New Zealand family suffered and worried for someone's son, someone's father and someone's husband. Gatland is a quiet, sincere man who just happens to be in the most public of jobs. Why do we judge people we have never met from a series of sound bites or headlines or pitch-time plays?

Just a few hours after the game, Jonathan's dad, Jerry, who is the best coach I know, hit a big birthday. From the day Jerry arrived in New Zealand his sons' form improved.

So there he was on the bus after the game counting down the clock. "It's only 53 minutes to my dad's birthday," he told us. This Bilbo is a big boy now but even big boys need their dad.

So maybe the next time you decide to have a cut remember Martin the Mannequin is made of fibre glass but real people like Warren, Jonathan, Andy, Owen, Sean, Beaudy, Sonny Bill and many more are made of flesh and blood.

Irish Independent

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