Thursday 21 September 2017

12 days of Kimmage: Paul sat down with Jonathan Sexton in January

Over the Christmas/New Year period we'll be looking back at some of Paul Kimmage's big interviews of 2015. Here's his sit-down with Jonathan Sexton from January 25

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland. Guinness Series, Ireland v Australia. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin.
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

On the morning after my interview with Jonathan Sexton, I open my laptop, key 'Gift Grub' into the 'Goggeliser' and marvel at the genius of Mario Rosenstock. The sketch is from last November - the Irish rugby team are about to play Australia, and have been summoned to a recording studio a few days before the game.

"Okay, guys," a producer announces. "We know you've a big game against Australia on Saturday but we are aware of your commercial commitments as well, so we've block-booked you today in the studio to get all your ads out of the way. Okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," the players respond, raucously. But they're not all okay.

Paulie, the team leader, identifies the problem and offers comfort and advice to the debutant.

"You okay, Johnny?"

"Yeah, just a bit nervous . . . never done an ad before, Paulie."

"Well you've heard the rest of us, haven't you? It's easy-peasy."

"Yeah, yeah, you're all ehh . . . you're all brilliant, yeah."

Then, leading by example, Paulie steps to the mic and completes his ad for "Pinergy' in one take.

"That's great Paul," the producer, enthuses. "You happy with that?"

"Yep, it was executed to the pre-ordained pattern," he replies.

Rob Kearney is next up for the National Dairy Council.

"Great Rob."

"Go on Rob."

"Wooh!"

Paul Wallace weaves some spin for the "Cross Cycle Rugby Legends"; Donncha O'Callaghan promotes a new water-saving 'Triton' ("They're some shower!") and then, finally, it's the debutant's turn.

"Go on Johnny."

"Good man Johnny."

"Put the fear of God into this!"

The genius of what happens next - Sexton's reticence as he steps to the mic, his flat, almost monotone delivery and refusal to act or hype - is that it captures the essential Johnno. And then there's the pure comedy gold of his panic call to Ronan O'Gara.

"Rog, I'm just doing an ad here. Any tips?"

"It's not Newbridge, is it? You haven't gone and taken that off me as well?"

"No, Investec."

"Johnny, just do what I do - make it sound as if it's the most exciting thing in the world."

"Cool."

But it's not cool. Sexton tries again and fails hopelessly. He wasn't built for a celebrity world.

1 The demons driving Johnny

A weird thing happened during the game tonight. I was standing over a penalty during the first half, all lined-up and ready to go, when this thought popped into my head: 'Is Warren Gatland watching this kick?' I call it weird, but then it's not really weird because stuff like this happens fairly regularly. I could be standing over a really important kick and suddenly I imagine Laura or my mum, with their heads in their hands, unable to watch. Then I just snap out of it and get on with the job.

- Jonathan Sexton: Becoming a Lion

Paul Kimmage: I bring glad tidings to you from your homeland.

Jonathan Sexton: What's that?

(I show him a copy of last week's Sunday Business Post and quote an excerpt from Barry J Whyte's report: "Returning star Jonathan Sexton is the most marketable Irish personality for 2015, according to a survey of the sponsorship market by industry analysts Onside Sponsorship.")

PK: Here's the new world order according to the survey: 22 per cent Johnny Sexton, 19 per cent Brian O'Driscoll, 10 per cent Rory McIlroy, 9 per cent Katie Taylor, 7 per cent Amy Huberman.

JS (laughs): Yeah, someone sent that to me by email. It's a bit of a shock.

PK: Bet you never imagined you'd be more marketable than BOD?

JS: No, I still wouldn't. I don't know whose opinion that is.

PK: Seems pretty reputable.

JS: Well, I suppose the fact that Brian is retired now obviously helps but I admire all the people on the list. It's nice to be considered in their company.

PK: Things have kicked on for you since the last time I was here.

JS: Yeah, they've been ticking along nicely - some ups and downs but I don't think anything has changed massively.

PK: What about the recognition?

JS: It's worlds apart. I go for a walk with Laura here most weekends - there's a really nice park down the road - and not one person would bat an eyelid, which is really nice. And then you go home to Dublin and a lot of people recognise you, which is also nice. There are pros and cons I suppose; sometimes you want a quiet moment and that's not always possible but the anon, anonym, anon, I don't know how to pronounce that word.

PK: It's anomin, anoni, anony . . .

JS (laughs): You're a journalist. I feel better about myself.

PK: Anonymity.

JS: I'm not going to try it . . . but yeah, Paris is totally different. It's nice being able to float around and not get noticed.

PK: Has it impacted on your life in any way?

JS: Well, it hasn't changed me.

PK: I'm thinking about the hoops you had to jump through with your sponsors to get this interview done.

JS: I don't have too many sponsors.

PK: How many?

JS: Toyota, adidas, "3", Investec, but they'll probably leave me now because I'm coming back to Leinster. And I'm a brand ambassador for Aer Lingus but that's a bit smaller.

PK: What's the problem with Investec?

JS: Leinster are sponsored by Bank of Ireland, and the IRFU are sponsored by Ulster Bank so there's a conflict.

PK: What was the tag line from that ad you did for them again? Something about . . .

JS (laughs): Don't go there, I got an awful slagging about that. Did you hear the 'Gift Grub' podcast?

PK: Mario Rosenstock?

JS: Yeah, he's brilliant. It was about all of us doing marketing stuff and making a balls of it. ROG (Ronan O'Gara) features heavily and Paulie (O'Connell) and Rob Kearney. I thought it was very funny.

PK: You had a meeting with the neurosurgeon today?

JS: Yeah, it was just a check-up to make sure everything is on the right track. I've to see him again on the 5th of February, which is two days before the Italy game, just to get hopefully the all-clear for the French game.

PK: The surgeon is Jean-Francois Chermann.

JS: Yeah.

PK: Who is he? Who does he work for?

JS: I think he used to be with French federation but I'm not 100 per cent on that. He wrote a book (KO, Le Dossier Qui Derange) about the fears and worries of concussion and what needs to be done, but it wasn't accepted that well over here. He works with the Parisian clubs - Racing and Stade Francais - as an independent neurologist.

PK: So you were referred to him by the club?

JS: Yeah. Basically, because it's such a serious issue, any head knocks or concussions are sent to Chermann for tests, and he decides. It's his passion. He will always do what's right for the player so it's reassuring when you go to see him. He was very honest with me from the outset: "You're going to be fine," he said, "but you need to make sure it's not a recurring thing. Just take your 12 weeks (off) and you'll be as good as gold when you come back."

PK: When is the last time you spoke to Joe Schmidt?

JS: He checked in by text last week, to see how I was before he announced the (Six Nations) squad. We've had a little contact in terms of how I'm progressing and how I'm feeling, but I don't know what his plans are. Munster are playing on Sunday, so we're meeting on Monday morning and I'll probably stay and help the lads for the Italy game. He hasn't spoken to me about whether I'll be considered for the game against France but I've trained hard - I can do everything except contact - and we'll see what he does.

PK: But it's Chermann who will decide when you play again?

JS: Yeah, he's in charge and he's said I should be good to go on the 14th of February unless something shows up in the test.

PK: What is the test?

JS: There are lots of tests. They vary. A small test would be a list of words that you have to repeat . . .

PK: Like anonymity.

JS (laughs): Yeah, but they change the tests around because they don't want you getting too familiar with them. He has this new test - a computer test in 3D - that a lot of the American football teams are using now. Basically, they give you eight yellow tennis balls and four turn orange, like basketballs, and then they turn back to yellow again and start moving. The balls land and are numbered from one to eight and you have to tell which four changed.

PK: That sounds like a challenge even with all of your faculties?

JS: It is.

PK: Okay, let's turn back the clock and take it chronologically. The last time we sat down, in September 2013, your book was about to be serialised and you weren't exactly relishing it. What was the experience like?

JS: It was okay. It was a diary of a year and wasn't a massive insight into me, but it gave people a snapshot of what a professional rugby player goes through, mentally and sometimes physically. I don't massively regret doing it but I'm still not sure if it was the right thing to do.

PK: It was published just before the autumn internationals. You had played 13 weeks for Racing in succession and it was starting to take a toll.

JS: I think the worst thing I did was take a break. I arrived into camp and Joe said: "Look, you're not playing against Samoa, you've played too much." And it felt like a punishment because these were the games I was most looking forward to because I was coming home with a point to prove (after leaving Leinster) but I had to sit the first game out. So I had a few days off and came back and tore my hamstring just before half-time in the Australia game.

PK: It looked pretty bad at the time.

JS: I never thought I was going to be fit right up to the Thursday before the All Blacks game and it still wasn't right. But we weren't going to play them again before the World Cup and I wanted to at least give it a try, but that's probably a lesson looking back.

PK: What was the lesson? Don't play when you're injured?

JS: Well, that's the thing - I don't know if I could have lived with myself if I didn't try to play, and I didn't play badly, but I hurt it again in the second half and tried to keep going when I should really have come off but I stayed on and missed the kick that was, in hindsight, important. And standing over it, I knew it was important but at no point did it enter my head, 'This is to win the match.'

PK: It entered my head. I remember thinking: 'If this goes over they're beaten. There is no way back.'

JS (laughs): Yeah, well, maybe I should have been thinking like that. I knew it was bloody important but I've had loads of kicks in the last seconds of a game when you know: 'As soon as I kick this it's over.' That game wasn't over. We were playing New Zealand and there were seven minutes left, and they could score three times in seven minutes if we weren't on our game. But I missed, and we lost.

PK: One of the best things about your book was the insight you gave about the stuff that goes through your head when you're standing over an important kick like that. I had just read it, and remember watching you with my head buried in my hands: 'Sweet Jesus! What are those demons saying to him now?'

JS (laughs): No, it wasn't too bad. I had clear thoughts. There was a slight breeze blowing from left to right and I started shuffling to fix my feet and waiting for it to calm. I should have just banged it straight down the middle but probably second guessed myself a little, and once you do that . . .

PK: You came off straight after if I remember?

JS: I came off, and thought we were still leading after they had scored their try but I looked at the board and was already disappointed we had drawn when he (Aaron Cruden) missed the conversion. And then he got a second attempt (the ref ordered the kick to be retaken) and I was just thinking what I'd have given for a second attempt at my one (laughs).

But look, I think everything happens for a reason. (Two months later), I had a kick against Scotland to go two scores clear from the exact same spot; I had a kick against Wales to go two scores clear from the exact same spot; I had a kick against England to put us 10 points ahead from the exact same spot; I missed one at the start against France from the exact same spot but kicked one in the second half to go two scores clear, and before every one of those kicks, I thought about the kick against New Zealand.

PK: Did you really?

JS: Yeah.

PK: That's interesting.

JS: Yeah, but I'd still rather go back and take the one against New Zealand (laughs). I don't think your team-mates ever blame you when those kicks go astray but they don't over-congratulate you (when you nail them), either. As Neil Jenkins (the former Welsh international) says: "No one thanks the postman for delivering letters. It's his job." And that's probably a good way to think about it.

PK: But that's not what you were thinking at the time?

JS: No.

PK: I wrote a column a week later about how devastating that would have been for you - you're hard on yourself.

JS: Yeah.

PK: And you've obviously compartmentalised it now, but how did you feel on the night of the game? We have a chance to beat New Zealand for the first time in history and people are walking from the ground thinking: 'That fucking eejit Johnny Sexton! If only he had made that kick!'

JS: Yeah, those are the thoughts that come into your head - you've let those people down.

PK: And you beat yourself up?

JS: Definitely, but I'd like to think that everyone else was in the same boat. We looked at the video afterwards; there were seven minutes left when I missed the kick and we made a crazy amount of defensive errors. So I'm sure everyone in the room was having horrible thoughts.

PK: But that was later, wasn't it?

JS: Yeah, when we came in for Christmas camp. We watched all seven minutes after the kick missed.

PK: Did the kick feature?

JS: The end point, when they caught the ball behind the post.

PK: But you were taken off then, so strictly, what happened after that wasn't your fault.

JS (smiles): Well, that would be nice: 'Lads, we were winning by five when I came off' but that's not how it works. It was one of the toughest days of my career.

PK: And you were reminded of it several times that winter.

JS: Yeah, I remember coming back to the club and everyone was talking about what an incredible match it was - one of the best games they had ever seen - and no one mentioned the elephant in the room. Then the president came in and made a beeline towards me.

PK: This is the Racing president, Jacky Lorenzetti?

JS: Yeah.

PK: Go on.

JS: "How are you?" he says.

"I'm good."

"How's your head?" he says.

"No, I came off because I hurt my hamstring."

"No, no, your head," he says. "Mentally, how are you after missing the kick cost the game?" And all of the Welsh boys are pissing themselves because he's just gone straight in. But in many ways that kind of helped.

ROG was there, and it was good to go through it with him because I still wasn't sure how I had missed. Was it my hamstring? Did I commit to the kick fully? I don't know. I know I learnt from it, but that still doesn't give you another chance. But maybe I'll get one down the line against New Zealand in the World Cup.

PK: Did the positives from that game - the fact that you had played so well for 80 minutes against the world champions - feed into the Six Nations?

JS: Yeah, I think we took a lot of confidence from it, even though we didn't finish the job.

PK: What about the fact that it was Brian's last hurrah?

JS: Yeah, I suppose that added a bit of pressure.

PK: Did it?

JS: I would say so, yeah. Everyone wanted him to leave on the best note possible - the whole country was talking about it - and in a lot of ways the Championship was almost a side issue. Not everyone gets to go out on their own terms - ROG finished in very different circumstances - but Brian got the send-off that he deserved.

PK: Was it spoken about amongst the team?

JS: Joe mentioned it at the very last minute, just before we left the hotel to play France. It was the first time I noticed Brian getting a bit cut-up (emotionally) and I felt a little added pressure (to do well for him).

PK: Do you remember what Joe said?

JS: Well, what's said behind closed-doors stays there, but the gist of it was that Brian had put his body on the line for 140-odd games and we needed to do it for him today.

PK: And it impacted on you all?

JS: Well, I certainly felt it.

PK: You were concussed during the French game.

JS: I was hit by (Mathieu) Bastareaud.

PK: He hit you?

JS: I went to tackle him and he put his arm up at the last second and caught me on the sweet spot. It probably looked worse than it was but they don't take any risks and took me back to the dressing room to make sure nothing was wrong with my neck or head. It was the only time I have ever been stretchered off in my career and it took a lot of the gloss off it for me.

PK: Yes, I was going to ask.

JS: Yeah, it was weird . . . When you're not on the pitch, or sitting in the dressing room by yourself, you feel just like the other four million watching it on TV. I felt detached from it. It was strange.

PK: When did you reattach? Were you still in the dressing room when the game finished?

JS: No, I had come out to the side of the pitch but it still felt different, especially with the way the game ended.

PK: But still a big moment?

JS: Definitely. I was lucky to be part of a Leinster team that won three Heineken Cups and I've played for the Lions and had success there but there was this big gap of nothing in an Ireland jersey, and it was great to achieve something and get that monkey off my back. And hopefully that's just a start.

PK: Did you come home after the game?

JS: Yeah, it probably wasn't the best idea but I flew home on the Sunday morning with the squad and flew back to Paris on the 6.50 flight on Monday morning. So, not the best idea, but I didn't want to miss out on the celebrations because I was in bed early after the game.

PK: Doctor's orders?

JS: Yeah, when you get a bang on the head there's no drink and it's early to bed, so I missed out on the celebrations in Paris and wanted to enjoy them the next day. We had a reception in the Four Seasons hotel and all the families were there. It was nice.

PK: Two days later, you were asked about your future in an interview with 2FM and you dismissed any notion that you were coming back to Leinster: "That's not going to happen," you said. "Me and my wife are settled. We have a baby due in July and it will be born in Paris, please God."

JS: There was a stage, during that first season, when I was already thinking about what I was going to be doing (in 2015): 'Would I be staying? Would I be going? Would Leinster need or want me back?' But for my own head, and the sake of my performances, I needed to put that out of my mind and accept that I was playing for Racing and to make the most of it here. Because I wasn't making the most of it - I was worrying about a decision I might have to make in 12 months' time.

PK: You needed to commit to Racing?

JS: I needed to put myself into it, fully.

PK: And that was hard because they weren't doing well?

JS: Not at first, but things started to turn.

PK: The performances?

JS: Yeah, we were playing better and I started to enjoy it more and by the end of the season we had got to the (Championship) semi-final against Toulon. So overall, it was a positive first season and I was ready to make the most of it here.

PK: Then it was Ireland duty again and the summer tour to Argentina?

JS: Yeah.

PK: And in that same month - June - your son was born?

JS: Yeah, that was funny, Laura was eight months pregnant before I left for Argentina and we went to the doctor and did some tests to make sure I wouldn't have to fly home. The doctor was adamant: "This thing isn't coming any time soon." So we said "grand" and off I went, and the baby was born about three days after I got back!

PK: He was born in Paris?

JS: Yeah.

PK: Why?

JS: Because all of the doctors and gynaecologists she had seen during the year were here, so there was no point in trying to have the baby in Dublin.

PK: Sorry, that was obviously a stupid question, but here's another one: Where did you get 'Luca' from?

JS: We were thinking about French names - Louis and Francois - seeing as he was born in Paris, but we didn't really like them. Then Laura said "What about Luc?" and we really liked that. This was about an hour after he was born, so we weren't well prepared, but in the space of about 20 minutes it had turned into Luca.

PK: But Luca is Italian?

JS (laughs): Yeah. We changed from French to European.

PK: When did you take him home?

JS: We were told to wait for at least two weeks, which wasn't ideal, but he's the first grandchild on either side so everyone was excited to see him.

PK: They hadn't seen him before you brought him home?

JS: No.

PK: That was a big deal.

JS: It was, and it was strange in the hospital because that's the time when everyone comes to see the baby but there was just the three of us. My friends from the club came in, and we had the O'Garas here, so it was a challenge in some ways to do it all by ourselves but it was nice.

PK: What time was he born?

JS: Six thirty in the morning.

PK: Were you there?

JS: Of course.

PK: Was it a long night?

JS (laughs): Well, I made the mistake of saying, "I'm absolutely wrecked" at five o'clock and it wasn't taken too kindly.

2 The problem with his head

"At this stage he's not anywhere near returning to play anyway, as he has headaches passing a ball and running: so that's not a good sign. I think one-in-three sessions is troublesome at the minute, he does two or three sessions of no symptoms, but without doing contact work that would obviously worry you. So you'd have to feel he has a substantial way to go before he's even contemplating hitting a tackle shield."

- Ronan O'Gara on December 16

PK: Okay, let's talk about this season. It started in August with a win against Montpellier and a loss at Bordeaux and the announcement that you were coming home. When did that process of returning to Leinster start?

JS: The start of the summer was when the first contact was made. It was a little bit drawn out but it really kicked off at the end of July when we had some proper talks. I made the decision in August and told the club that I was going to leave just before the start of the season.

PK: So they knew before the first game?

JS: A few of the players and the coaches knew before we played Montpellier, so that was a huge game for me. I needed to prove that I was still committed for the season and it worked out great because I played well and had a kick to win it in the last minute, and got it. It was announced after the Bordeaux game. I didn't play great because I knew what was coming and it was playing on my mind a bit.

PK: What was playing on your mind?

JS: That everyone in the club would know that I was going. I had grown close to a lot of the guys over here. We had all started a journey but I had decided that I wasn't going to be part of it after this season, and I was worried how they were going to accept that.

PK: What made you decide to come home?

JS: There were a lot of reasons, but there were a few reasons to stay as well.

PK: You gave an interview to Off the Ball in September and put it down to family reasons: "I'd like my son to see me play for Leinster, I'd like him to come to the RDS every week. They're small things that come into my mind and I suppose there was a couple of moments last year watching the lads play for Leinster where I missed it."

JS: Yeah, that was during that period when I felt I needed to draw a line: 'I'm here now. That's gone. That's finished.'

PK: So what changed?

JS: Well there were lots of things…the international stuff. It's not ideal - and I've said this to the club, and the coaches and the president - for guys that have aspirations to play international rugby (to have to come back from training camps) to play with the club in the Top 14. For instance, a week before the Six Nations last year, I was in camp for three days and had to go back to Paris to play a game, which is not ideal when the training you're doing is designed for a game two weeks later.

Then I play two games for Ireland and have to go back to Paris again, but there's a reason why there's a gap in the Six Nations; two internationals in a row is tough. I missed a camp week before the England game last year and it's just not ideal. So that was a big reason, and then there was what I said in that interview about my kid.

PK: You'd like him to come to the RDS.

JS: I'd like him to have his aunties and uncles around him. When I left, I took a lot away from my family: Laura had her circle of friends at Leinster and you've your family coming to the games every week. And there was the draw of playing for Leinster again - playing with the guys I grew up with, so there was all that stuff. On the other hand, I have a great relationship with everyone here and there were lots of reasons to stay.

PK: Who did you listen to when you were making the decision?

JS: Obviously Laura, because she's the only one that knows the ins and outs of living here every day. It was tough at the start but by the end of the season we were really settled and happy, and I'm still happy, but I think I'll be happier at home and I just think it's the best place for me if I want to be the best that I can be. I was very honest with the club. I told the president I wasn't playing games with him, or looking for him to come back with . . .

PK: A better offer?

JS: Yeah, because he said to me: "What can I do to get you to stay?" I said, "Look, I've made my decision," and I think he respected that. I've still got a good relationship with him; I've got a good relationship with the coaches. They haven't treated me any different - if anything, we get on even better because they know . . .

PK: You're being genuine?

JS: Yeah.

PK: But it must be hard when you still have a season to play?

JS: The important thing for me was to show that my commitment wouldn't diminish and that's been tough because a week after the decision was announced I broke my jaw against Toulon. Then I came back, played three games, went to Irish camp and came back injured again. So since the announcement, I've played just two Heineken Cup games and a Top 14 game for the club and that's been hard, but I hope to prove when I get back fit that I'll give everything until the end of the season. I want something to show for my time here and to win something with the guys I've become great friends with.

PK: That Irish camp you mentioned was the November internationals.

JS: Yeah, the dynamics of those games was bizarre. We were written off against South Africa because of the guys that had left, and the guys that were injured. Brian had just retired; we were missing Cian (Healy) and Seán (O'Brien) and (Keith) Earls and (Luke) Fitzgerald and all the guys from the previous season that had played well: Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Iain Henderson. I think they underestimated us a bit, and the next time we play will be a much tougher game but it was an amazing win for us.

And then it was the total opposite against Australia: 'We were brilliant and were going to hammer them.' So we had two different dynamics to deal with, and that was great, because we're going to have these ups and downs in the future - whether it's the Six Nations or the World Cup - when we'll either be hyped up or written off. But we can look back on these two games knowing that everything that's said on the outside is irrelevant, once we get our stuff right.

PK: And the constant through all of this is Joe Schmidt.

JS: Yeah, look, he's obviously the man in charge and deserves all the plaudits but he has some very good guys around him; he has an amazing captain and a good spine of a team. Joe ticks all the boxes - he's a good man-manager, a good motivator and the best technical coach we've all ever had.

PK: You were regarded as his "favourite son" when he was at Leinster. Has that changed?

JS (laughs): I get on well with him, but I think all the "10s" get on well with him. He prepares the team well and makes our job easier but I've always said that the best thing about him is the way that . . . Some coaches judge on the outcome rather than the decision: if I decide to run the ball and we've an overlap, that's the right decision (for Joe); and if the guys on the outside drop it or make a balls of it, that will be their fault, not mine.

So it's great that I go into the game with a clear mind as to what he is looking for. But also, and a few of the guys have said this, you play the game with two voices in your head - your own, and his commentary. Make a mistake and you know you're going to hear about it on Monday morning.

PK: How is the - I was going to say criticism - delivered?

JS: Well it is criticism.

PK: How is it delivered?

JS: It's always done with a view to getting better.

PK: Sure, but what about the tone or dynamic? Is it dispassionate? Aggressive?

JS: It's ruthless.

PK: Ruthless?

JS: Yeah, with a smile on his face.

PK: That doesn't tally.

JS: That's why he's good - you know he's the boss but he's doing it in a friendly way.

PK: So no hairdryer? He doesn't throw cups at you?

JS: I've seen him lose his temper.

PK: You have?

JS: Yeah, he's got a temper.

PK: Interesting.

JS: He doesn't speak calmly all the time. He has a great relationship with everyone but it doesn't matter who you are - he'll have no problem dropping you.

PK: He has been bestowed with sainthood here now but he's always struck me as being absolutely ruthless. That he would do whatever it takes.

JS: Well, he'll do whatever he thinks is right, and if he feels someone is not performing he'll change it. And guys know that. But they also know that if they deliver what he wants, there's every chance they'll be in the team.

PK: Does he swear?

JS (laughs): Why does that matter?

PK: I'm interested.

JS: You'll get me in trouble.

PK: Why? You think that would reflect badly on him?

JS: No, but like you said, he's a saint in Ireland and I don't want to take that away from him.

PK (laughs): That's fair . . . Okay, let's go back to the Australia game. The downside of another great performance from you is a clash of heads with Rob Kearney.

JS: Yeah, I just got unlucky. I think I made 20 tackles over the course of the two games and the last one was head-on-head but if Rob didn't come in from the other side, or I didn't come it from the side I was coming from, it wouldn't have happened. But I wasn't too worried about it afterwards; I didn't feel too bad after the game.

PK: You didn't?

JS: No, I just had a little bit of a headache, and the next day I had a little bit more but I actually felt good the first week. Then I just had a few symptoms when I went back training.

PK: At what stage did Chermann get involved?

JS: I went to see him on the Tuesday. I had a headache - which is normal after you get a bang on the head - but I felt okay. I wasn't sick. There was no memory loss or any of the other symptoms associated with concussion, just a small headache. We did some tests and the baseline was better than average but a little bit down on where I would normally be. He said, "Okay, take three weeks off and we'll see how you go." So I started training again but I never got much better.

PK: What does that mean?

JS: I wasn't really bad, I wasn't getting sick or dizzy or falling over, but I wasn't 100 per cent. I did the tests again and hadn't improved. He said, "Look, you're actually reasonably good, but I think for you, and your career, you should take 12 weeks."

So it was precautionary. The tests showed a small problem that needed time to heal up but I'm feeling great now.

PK: The first we heard about it here was an interview Ronan O'Gara gave about three weeks after the game.

JS: Well, I knew at that stage I was going to be out, and he knew and was obviously trying to protect me.

PK: But nobody else knew?

JS: No, but he wasn't going to lie and tell everyone I was perfect. Because a couple of days later it was going to be announced that I was out for 12 weeks.

PK: The picture he presented wasn't pretty. I remember listening to him, or reading it, and thinking: 'This sounds serious!'

JS: Well it's serious when it's your head, isn't it? There was a stage, after three or four weeks, when I would not have been comfortable playing - I still had a little symptom, and the thought of throwing myself in front of a big forward wasn't the most appealing. But I feel great now. I'm doing all of the drills and feeling much more confident. I'm only allowed to do non-contact training but accidents happen and I got a bit of a bang last week; I was running a support line and someone stepped in front of me and we clashed heads. At first I thought, 'Shit I'm going to be gone for another three months' but I was perfect. Not a bother. And I'm actually glad it happened.

PK: It's reassuring?

JS: Yeah.

PK: What about the overall picture about how you make your living. The game seems more dangerous now . . . You're smiling?

JS: No, well, people are saying there are more concussions in rugby now - there's not, we're just getting looked after better.

PK: The concussions are being flagged?

JS: Yeah, people are more aware, so I think that's where that notion is coming from. But look, it's a contact sport, and like any contact sport it has a small element of danger but I think it's getting safer. Take the tackle on Brian O'Driscoll in the 2005 Lions Tour - if that happened now they'd be banned for six months. The scrum is much safer; you're not allowed to lift in the tackle and there's no tackling in the air. So for me they're doing everything they can.

PK: The players are also getting bigger. They're hitting harder and running faster.

JS: Yeah, but all of the players are. The guy running at me is stronger but I'm stronger as well, so everyone is on the same . . .

PK: The balance is the same?

JS: We're all bigger, and that's not just training, it's evolution. I'm bigger than my dad; he's bigger than his dad; Luca is probably going to be bigger than me . . . that's normal I think.

PK: What impact did the Laurent Benezech (Rugby, what are your values) book have here?

JS: I don't know him; I've never met him; I haven't read the book. I've heard about it because you brought it to people's attention but . . .

PK: You heard about it through me?

JS: Yeah.

PK: But you're living in the country where it made headlines?

JS: Yeah, but I don't read the French press. I know people that have been . . . accused. Is that the right word? And there's a lot of confusion about it. Is he talking about medication? Supplements? Illegal substances? I don't know. And I don't want to comment until I've read it.

PK: Was it a source of debate at the club?

JS: There was a bit of joking about one of the players that was named and I asked who this guy was but I don't know what he's saying. Is he saying there are illegal substances in rugby - performance-enhancing - or is he talking about supplements?

PK: He's talking about both.

JS: Everything?

PK: He's raising a red flag about the "medicalisation of performance in rugby."

JS: Well, from a players' point of view, of course we have to look after ourselves. You can't play when you're not right to play but at the same time we trust the doctors that are in place here. All the supplements we take are batch-tested; the nutritionist makes a note of the batch number on every tub we are given and we're not encouraged to take anything outside of that.

PK: How do you feel about the Six Nations this year?

JS: Well, obviously I'm in a different headspace to everyone else. I'm thinking four weeks away; I'm thinking about France and trying to get back in the best shape possible. From a team point of view, I think we're in a good spot; we're coming off the back of a good year but no one is getting carried away.

PK: What about the provinces last weekend?

JS: Munster I was surprised by - I watched it on TV and pictured it going a different way, but I don't think it's a worry. And it doesn't translate into the Irish team - the same as success. When the provinces are going well, it doesn't mean the Irish team is going to go well - there's a different dynamic.

PK: You made the shortlist for 'World Player of the Year' last year?

JS: Yeah.

PK: The only northern hemisphere player to be nominated?

JS: Yeah.

PK: Did that register with you?

JS: It did, yeah. It was a shock, and it was nice to be nominated but it's not something I write down (as a goal) every year. When you're an outhalf - and I've always said this - you're only as good as the guys around you, so I think my team-mates deserve credit for making me look good, because there's no way I'd have been nominated if they weren't doing their job.

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