Monday 23 October 2017

How softly-spoken Dubliner Jonathan Sexton became the finest fly-half in the world

Jonathan Sexton, playing for his school St Mary's at 16, celebrates winning the Leinster Schools' Final in 2002
Jonathan Sexton, playing for his school St Mary's at 16, celebrates winning the Leinster Schools' Final in 2002

Oliver Brown

Billy Keane claims he can still hear the sound of his godson Johnny kicking a ball, thousands of times, against the back wall of his pub in Listowel.

Some of the regulars would be faintly relieved when the young boy returned home to Dublin, just so that they could savour a little peace.

The hostelry is a County Kerry institution in its own right: named after the playwright John B Keane, Billy’s father, who would compose scripts and essays behind the bar, the snug room now displays the first Ireland jersey of a certain Jonathan Sexton. “To my godfather Billy,” reads the dedication beneath.

Sexton was fond of assuring his family, with a certain cocksureness, that he would wear the green shirt one day.

There was always, according to Keane, “a bit of the devil in him”. Seldom could he have forecast, though, that on the day of his 49th cap he would be the linchpin, the mainspring, the creative foundation of all Joe Schmidt’s schemes to thwart England and lay a platform for a second straight Six Nations title.

The six penalties he slotted to beat France 15 days ago were almost as remarkable as the four concussions from which he had convalesced to make the team in the first place.

What makes Sexton the finest fly-half in the world, on present form, is his wonderfully cultured combination of accuracy and power. The only No 10 to be included on World Rugby’s five-man shortlist for the 2014 player of the year award, he possesses the eye for a ball imparted by father John, in his time an Irish amateur international of considerable repute.

To this he allies the brute strength exemplified by his uncle Willie, a formidable openside who played three times for Ireland. It takes an especially brave outside-half to try, as Sexton once did, to start a training-ground fight at Racing Métro with giant Springbok lock Juandré Kruger. He was giving up a 20kg weight difference but looked, according to observers, wholly undaunted.

You would not know it from talking to him, mind. He speaks softly, almost inaudibly at times, so desperate is he not to project any impression of complacency. “Oh, he’s a great lad, but so shy,” Keane admits.

Such is Sexton’s wariness of exposure that he has instructed his younger brother Jerry, on trial at Exeter, not to venture any view on his career achievements. Likewise, his school, St Mary’s College in Dublin, say they are not at liberty to speak without Johnny’s express permission. His mother Clare continues to run the Rathgar Hair Salon, in the south of the capital. His wife Laura – “practical, gets things done”, according to Keane – provides the steadfast support. Sexton’s innermost circle protect him for fear of adding to the hype.

The most precious insights into his character come from those a step or two removed from the obsessiveness of Sexton’s rugby routine. Keane has spent vast amounts of time with Johnny since he was a baby and has always strongly disputed preconceptions, arising from the controversial departure from Leinster for a £540,000-a-year contract at Racing, that he was in any way seduced by fame.

Johnny would have taken a £200,000 hit, Keane maintains, just to stay under the auspices of the Irish Rugby Football Union, but no offer was forthcoming. And so it transpires that Sexton now spends much of his time with Laura in a plush apartment in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

There, ironically, he has been reunited with Ronan O’Gara, once his fiercest rival for the Ireland No 10 berth and Racing’s head coach since 2013. The relationship used to be famously strained: O’Gara the venerable elder statesman, Ireland’s all-time record points scorer, versus Sexton, the aggressive upstart with rather too much lip. There is a picture, from a 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park, where Sexton is apparently screaming in his adversary’s face after a Leinster try against Munster. They had got off on the wrong foot ever since O’Gara, in a terse exchange at Thomond Park, described him as a “nobody”.

Even at Racing, an element of mischief endures between ‘ROG’ and his heir presumptive. “Johnny the nerd,” O’Gara calls Sexton in a recent video for Ireland team sponsors Three. It is not immediately clear if it is affectionate. But O’Gara harbours an admiration for his protégé’s perfectionism that is palpable. “Jonny wanted to succeed, and he would do everything possible to succeed,” he says. “There are times he will slip into his car, turn on the radio, and his French lessons will be on. That’s what you’re dealing with.”

O’Gara, already admirably fluent in French, can at least boast of an advantage in the linguistic department. Sexton’s command of his adopted tongue was initially so bad that in one of his first Racing games, he mouthed the word ‘Paris’, using the French pronunciation ‘Paree’, to his back line – a code for a complex move involving decoy runners. Except his team-mates thought he said ‘pareil’, meaning a repeat of the previous move, and the elaborate stratagem degenerated into chaos.

No such confusion exists in the Ireland set-up that Sexton anchors with such aplomb. The great asset that he offers Schmidt, a stickler for detail, is that he seems virtually incapable of making a mistake. Peter Stringer, the former Ireland scrum-half whose career fleetingly overlapped with Sexton’s, observes: “I think Johnny is the best 10 in the world. Given his record at international level and the way he has played on the biggest stage, he has got to be in that position. He has been out of rugby for three months, and then he comes back and puts in a man-of-the-match performance. There’s nothing flash, but it is the control he brings to the game that is exactly what Joe wants for the type of game they play: very structured, few errors. It is a very simple game-plan, but so effective.”

Sexton is fast cementing a place in Irish rugby folklore through his reliable, indestructible nature. He has embraced such a role ever since the defining moment of his youth, when he scored the winning drop-goal in the 2002 Leinster schools final at a sopping-wet Lansdowne Road. “He just popped it over from nowhere,” Keane recalls. Richie Hughes, then his coach at St Mary’s and a mentor throughout his life – he even conveyed the news to Sexton that he had made the 2013 Lions squad – says: “It was a Roy-of-the-Rovers thing. Every schoolboy in the stand was thinking, ‘I wish that could have been me’. Most 16-year-olds would have thought, ‘Oh, goodness, what am I getting into here?’ And yet it didn’t faze him.”

Jerry, Sexton’s father, has watched his development with as much tension as pride. Nothing could surpass the sight, of course, of Johnny running in under the posts for the Lions’ momentum-turning try against Australia in Sydney, bouncing a chip into the clutches of George North before rounding off an extraordinary attack himself. But Keane tells how the previous Test, a narrow defeat in Melbourne, had left Jerry so drenched in sweat from the tension of it all that he needed to go home to change his clothes.

Johnny absorbed many a lesson from his dad, still an active member of Bective Rangers in Dublin. His sense of responsibility as he upholds the family name in Ireland is one he regards with the utmost seriousness. “Deep down, Johnny is a very emotional guy,” Keane explains. “When is out on the pitch, he feeds off all that. He wants to be proud and brave Irishman, to stand up for the national anthem. That’s the biggest motivating factor he has.”

Exhilaratingly, O’Gara maintains that Sexton still has more to show, arguing: “There is more in the tank. I believe, in the next two to three years, that we will see him hit a new level.” For England, conscious of the clinical precision with which Sexton delivered all 18 points against the French, that is a terrifying prospect. But for the denizens back in the John B Keane bar in Listowel, it could hardly be more gratifying. Go, Johnny go, indeed.

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