Tuesday 24 October 2017

'All I'm thinking about is winning titles'

Sexton steps into brave new world ready to live up to huge Racing expectations – no matter what the cost

Racing Metro's Jonathan Sexton, left, watched by kicking coach Ronan O'Gara during squad training
Racing Metro's Jonathan Sexton, left, watched by kicking coach Ronan O'Gara during squad training
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"ILS ARRIVENT" came the cry as a frisson of excitement ran through the small press room at Racing Metro's vast training complex.

The Top 14's latest star was on his way and the local media were ready to pounce.

Jonny Sexton had already appeared on the front page of the sports section of newspaper 'Le Parisien' yesterday morning, but still he was greeted by a sizable contingent of inquisitive locals in the club's cramped media room in their base south of Paris at 5.25 yesterday evening.

He sat down alongside his new coach Laurent Labit, took a drink of the toxic looking orange that was placed before him and began to take questions in English. He dallied a little in his new tongue but after two days' training exclusively en Francais, it was time to return to the comfort zone.

There was bristling when his salary, reputed to be the best in Europe at €700,000, was brought up, followed by a wry smile after some confusion when he was asked in French if he saw Ronan O'Gara as a rival for the No 10 jersey and a sheepish half apology when he explained in his best Leaving Cert French that he had been learning diligently, but the Lions tour had put a stop to any progress with the language.

Earlier, it hadn't looked a problem as Ireland's No 10 confidently strode around the pitch at Centre du Plessis taking control of the back line he will command this season.

Racing's players had been put through a physical session on Monday and had trained yesterday morning so, come afternoon, they were going through their back-line moves with minimal contact.

O'Gara had a watching brief as the animated Labit barked orders. It was simple enough stuff for Sexton, who ran at pivot for a number of three-on-two and four-on-three attacking drills before learning a little about the new defensive system he would play a part in.

He wasn't shy when discussing his stance with Labit, who animatedly showed him what he wanted, while the duo were joined by O'Gara for an in-depth chat at the end. Kicking practice starts tomorrow.

"It has been a crazy few weeks," he admitted of the whirlwind that greeted him on his return from the Lions.

"I am really happy to be here. My first two days have exceeded all of my expectations. It is tough work, I'll be playing games earlier than I'm used to, but that's good because sometimes when you have a long break for pre-season you can lose your rhythm.

"I feel like I'm just carrying on the same season as the Lions and that's a good thing.

"It's pretty clear to see the facilities here, with the new coaches here, with the new players that they had signed when I decided to come, I just think it is a very exciting new project and to be part of a successful team, a team who have not been successful for a long time, would be really special.

"That's all I'm thinking about at the moment, getting used to my new team and being successful, winning trophies, hopefully."

The year of Racing's foundation, 1888, dominates everything at the enormous Plessis training ground, a remarkable complex that dwarfs anything we possess in Ireland.

Its construction is part of owner Jacky Lorenzetti's plan to restore the club to the glories it enjoyed before the professional era. This is a club that remembers its rich past but wants a present to match.

Sexton is a key to that plan coming to fruition and he believes his experience of watching Leinster rise up from years of underachievement will help the club realise their ambitions.

Progress

"I was lucky that I was in Leinster when they weren't so successful. I was there from the outside at the start and I saw them progress, so maybe I know what it takes to be in a winning team. Hopefully I can give something to this team and hopefully we will win," he explained.

"The main ambition of this club is to win trophies, they have talked about a building period but now it is about succeeding."

His coach hinted that Sexton will have to battle for his place and he does have competition in Jonathan Wisniewski and Juan Martin Hernandez. But Metro didn't spend all that money and go to all of that effort to see their asset, who admits to turning down Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse, sit on the bench.

The money talk clearly makes him uncomfortable, but he'll have to get used to it. Sexton's salary is a topic of conversation in Paris and whether he likes it or not, it will come with being the star.

"Am I?" he replied wearily to being asked if being Europe's top-paid rugby player will bring stress with it.

"Some of the stuff I've read or been told isn't true. It is not something that will faze me or bring pressure. I've enough pressure trying to live up to my own expectations and those of the other players. That's what's important to me, that they respect me."

For now, he can focus on his rugby and getting his kicking boots back. His first session with O'Gara comes today and, after losing out on the kicking duties to Leigh Halfpenny on the Lions tour, he is relishing the prospect.

"I obviously missed it when I didn't have it. Leigh is a world-class kicker as well and Neil Jenkins just told him to kick and me to control the game," he said.

"I am looking forward to having both responsibilities back. Yeah, you do miss it when you don't have it. You're more nervous, but that's the pressure that you've had all your life so you do miss it."

After 25 minutes that was that, unveiling complete. All that remained was for the obligatory shot with the jersey and he could head out into the Parisian evening.

His new life has begun and you get the impression he's enjoying it. Just don't ask about the money.

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