Saturday 16 December 2017

A remarkable week in the life of Johnny Sexton

As they stood forlornly under the great stand of the Millennium Stadium soon after 5.30pm last Saturday, Leinster looked like a defeated team.

Behind by a massive 16 points in the Heineken European rugby cup final, they were crestfallen and dejected. Then one young man stepped forward, his head held high, and began to rally his teammates.

This was Jonny Sexton's date with destiny. When the players went into the dressing room, the 25-year-old was like a man possessed, according to Brian O'Driscoll. He just would not accept that they were beaten.

Here was a man who described himself as a "bit of nerd'' when it came to sport. He studied the ways of his heroes, Ireland's Ronan O'Gara and England's Johnny Wilkinson. He had scrutinised the ups and downs of sport in books, and how teams had come back from the dead.

And now he was standing addressing his teammates.

"I said we see in sport that teams can come back, like Liverpool a few years ago [in the famous champions league football final when they were down 3-0 to AC Milan in 2005]. Stuff like that happens. We had to believe it. We said that if we could get the next score, we could rattle them and build some momentum. Luckily, that's what happened," he said.

He suddenly lit a fuse of self-belief in his fellow players in a way that any other speaker -- whether they be Barack Obama or Enda Kenny -- would be proud of.

Sexton not only called his Band of Brothers to arms, like Shakespeare's King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt. He also led the way into the fray, scoring two tries and notching up 28 points. It was sort of performance normally only seen in the comic strip Roy of The Rovers.

Sexton was quick to try to deflect attention from his heroics this week, crediting the team as a whole for the comeback.

But in those few moments he was transformed from a young, up-and-coming player into a star who earned his spurs in one of the greatest sporting comebacks in history.

His heroics raised cheers not only in the affluent suburban lanes of south Dublin and across the Leinster counties, but also in Listowel, Co Kerry, because they see him as one of their own there.

So who is this young star who attracts relatively little attention beyond the rugby fraternity -- eclipsed perhaps by O'Driscoll, who moves easily in showbiz circles?

Sexton belongs to one of those typical Dublin-based families -- his father comes from Kerry stock, but he was born and reared in the capital. His uncle Wille turned out for Garryowen in Limerick, Munster and Ireland. His mother Clare runs a hairdressing salon in Rathgar in Dublin.

His godfather, the Listowel publican and Irish Independent writer Billy Keane, said Jonny's mother was so accomplished at her trade that she could put a perm on Keith Wood.

Clare does not go to watch Jonny play, but opens her hair salon on the day, and closes early to see the matches on television.

Sexton still goes down to Kerry on his holidays, and has said that he feels most relaxed around Listowel and Ballybunion.

Keane said he could see his godson's innate skill from a young age when he watched him kicking or passing a ball from one end of the garden to the other, straight into a bucket. Back in Dublin, at his first club, Bective Rangers, Sexton kicked balls around even when he was inside in the club house, smashing lights in the process.

As a schoolboy, he was a prodigy, scoring a winning drop goal for St Mary's College in a Leinster Schools Cup Final when he only was in Fourth Year.

But his apprenticeship in rugby has been anything but easy. For much of his early career, he lived in the shadow of two great men: Felipe Contepomi, his Argentinian mentor at Leinster; and his boyhood hero Ronan O'Gara for Ireland. He had to fight his way into both teams.

Much has been made of his rivalry with O'Gara for the Irish outhalf jersey, but their relationship is said to be one of deep, mutual respect.

Tony Ward, another Irish outhalf legend who went to the same school, said: "I have watched Sexton's progress since he was a schoolboy at St Mary's and am astonished by his range of talent.''

It's a talent that has already proved a money-spinner.

He already has a salary estimated at between between €350,000 to €400,000. He has a free Golf GTI car supplied by one his sponsors, Volkswagen.

But Keane says of his godson: "He is anything but flash.'' Sexton and his girlfriend Laura Priestley, a school teacher, do not feature strongly in the social columns. They have been going out together since they were in school.

Earlier this year, the young outhalf is thought to have been offered up to €500,000 a year to play for a French team, but he chose to stay in Dublin on a lower wage.

The attractions of staying close to home with his friends and family were probably not the only factors that influenced his decision to stay.

The nominal pay may be lower here, but he has greater potential to strike lucrative sponsorship deals while he continues to ply his trade in Dublin. He already has deals with several companies, including Adidas and Guinness.

John Trainor, an expert in sports endorsements for Onside Sponsorship, believes Sexton's role in Leinster's second Heineken Cup win will bring his profile to a whole new level.

"He has the opportunity to join Brian O'Driscoll as one of our most admired sporting personalities,'' says Trainor.

If he appears in TV adverts he has the potential to earn up €100,000 a year from each of the brands he endorses.

Having suffered some disappointment early in his career and having clawed his way to the top, none of this is likely to go to his head.

"He is a delight to deal with on a professional level,'' said one of his sponsors. "He always makes a big effort, especially with the fans.''

"What impresses me most about him is his humility,'' says Ward. "That is often the characteristic of a great sportsman.''

He may be earning big money now, but Sexton has an eye on the future. Away from his Leinster and Ireland commitments, he is studying for a degree at UCD.

Behind the scenes, the young outhalf gets involved in charity work, both for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Goal. The Make-A-Wish foundation offers help to children with life-threatening illnesses. On the days before big matches, Sexton invites the kids and their families to meet him at his training sessions.

"He is the usually the last player to come off the training pitch, because he is practising his kicking,'' says the foundation's manager Cathy Elliott. "But he is always very considerate, talking to each child afterwards and their families. He spends a lot of time with them.''

He had little time to rest on his laurels this week after the Heineken Cup Victory. After a day of celebrations on Sunday, his squad was back in training by Tuesday for today's Magners League Final against Munster in Limerick.

At times he may be reticent and shun the limelight, but last Saturday he showed he has the killer instinct necessary to be a top sportsman, and will speak up when required.

Deep down he must have always known that he would would succeed. At the age of just 14, he promised his godfather that he could have his Ireland shirt when he got his first Irish rugby cap, and it would be displayed above the bar in Listowel.

He was as good as his word. He not only came up with the green shirt, but he led his team Leinster out of hell to the promised land. And for that, he will never be forgotten.

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