Thursday 21 September 2017

Johnny Sexton: I hope to still be playing in four, five years - so my son can watch me

Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Johnny Sexton receives treatment after a heavy knock in the match with France in last year’s World Cup. Photo: Reuters
Johnny Sexton and wife Laura
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Johnny Sexton furrows his brow ruefully at the thought of the busy month he is facing.

As the Irish rugby squad have been battening down the hatches to prepare for the Six Nations, Sexton and his wife Laura are preparing for the birth of their second child "any day now" and are feeling very excited.

"Who knows?" says Sexton when asked when the event is likely to happen - though the due date is "early February".

The out-half has given this interview to highlight an innovative new campaign with Irish rugby sponsors, Three, which has partnered with Focus Ireland to raise awareness of the spiralling crisis of hidden homelessness in Ireland.

The couple haven't found out the sex, preferring the surprise, Sexton says.

"Laura is fine - a bit tired, especially when I'm in camp and she's trying to manage the little 'maniac'," he jokes of their first-born, Luca, now 20 months old.

"He's busy. Naughty busy," reveals Sexton, his face lighting up at the mention of his son. "But it's great," he says of fatherhood.

"It's nice to come home and you've got a lot of worries with your job and stresses and then you come in the door and they're sort of quickly forgotten about when you've to look after him."

Even now, the little boy is very gradually becoming aware that his father is someone worth watching.

"The odd time now he's starting to become a little bit aware when he sees I'm on TV and he claps when he sees me, apparently," laughs Sexton. "He doesn't really understand right now but I'll hopefully still be playing in three, four, five years time and then he'll properly understand."

The determination in his voice is as plain as day.

Sexton has spent the last number of months fending off claims by various commentators that he should retire from rugby because of concussion fears.

Most recently, Sexton lasted just nine minutes of Leinster's crushing Champions Cup defeat at the hands of Wasps before being withdrawn. George Hook was amongst the most vocal, calling for Sexton to hang up his boots, while a poll conducted by this newspaper found almost 70pc of readers felt he should retire on health grounds.

The relentless discussion has left Sexton weary - and deeply frustrated - since he has been given the medical all-clear to continue.

"We see the best neurologists and they tell us if we're going to play or not based on tests done by the best specialists," he says.

"They examine you and those tests take bloody two or three hours, you know?"

He believes the IRFU would not risk fielding an unfit player in any case because they would be liable "like you see in the NFL now".

Sexton feels medically uneducated commentators should back off because they are potentially tampering with players' careers.

"He tries to steer clear of media analysis but after Hook's views went out, his phone "was off the hook".

"People asking was I okay, if I was retiring, if I had really bad issues and that's all from a person who's totally uneducated in the area speaking their mind about something they don't really know about."

He admits that he had "a couple of serious concussions close together" and says this is why it was best for him to take a break.

"But even when they told me to take a break it was very precaut-ionary," he says with a sigh of frustration.

"I probably didn't really, really have to take the break but they just said let's just take the break so you don't have any issues going forward."

With no serious issues since, he now fears he will be left with "a sort of stigma attached" that he suffers from a serious concussion problem that he doesn't have, he says.

Given the all-clear to play in the Welsh game tomorrow, Sexton is anxious to put the issue behind him and move on. He is deeply passionate about what he does - and is happy to use the weight of his privileged position for the good, to shine the spotlight on the new Focus Ireland campaign to end hidden homelessness.

The €1m drive will see a three-minute documentary on hidden homelessness shown before the Six Nations games, a major advertising campaign on television, radio, outdoor and online, while rugby fans and members of the public are invited to help raise vital funds by texting HOME to 50300 to donate €2. No network charges will apply when donations are made on the Three network and all funds will go directly to Focus Ireland.

Asked how much they hope to raise, Focus Ireland CEO Ashley Balbirnie says they have no idea because it's "unchartered territory".

Three's approach to their organisation came as manna from heaven, he says.

He hopes the combination of this campaign - and a looming election - will finally begin to put a dint in the despair felt by many families living in B&Bs unable to even cook a family meal together.

So hidden is the crisis of this kind of homelessness, that few were even aware of it until a recent RTÉ documentary, he said.

Irish Independent

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