Thursday 23 May 2019

'I don't really mind how people see me' - Johnny Sexton talks to Barry Egan about the media, his faith and life after rugby

Johnny Sexton. Image credit: Frank McGrath.
Johnny Sexton. Image credit: Frank McGrath.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Wearing a teeny weeny Ireland jersey, Johnny Sexton was six years of age when his dad, Jerry, took him to Lansdowne Road for the first time to see a rugby match.

“It was one of my early childhood memories,” says the man who now wears Ireland’s coveted number 10 jersey on the field of dreams as one of the country’s greatest ever out-halves.

“I still remember going on my dad’s shoulders in Lansdowne Road. We just walked down from Donnybrook,” Johnny says.

Asked what he is like as a dad himself to Luca (five), Amy (three) and one-year-old Sophie, Jonathan Jeremiah Sexton is honest enough to say: “I try and be as good as I can. It’s very hard in the position that I am in, in terms of when you’re a kicker you put a lot of extra hours in. And when you put more hours into your kicking, you need to do more recovery. And sometimes when you’re doing more, you feel like you’re taking away from your family life. So, it can be hard. It is something that I struggled with at the start. Every time I was doing extras in rugby I felt like I was doing less for the family. And every time I was doing more for the family, I felt like I was cheating on my job. It is a hard balance to find.”

Does he bring his kids to games like his dad did with him?

“They are not at the age where they are too interested at the moment. When they come to the game, they are there for five minutes and then they just want to go home. So, they have been to games,” he says, “and it is great for me having them there, but I think that sometimes it is not great for them. I don’t think they actually like sitting in the cold watching me!” he laughs. “They don’t get it yet.” I ask Johnny Sexton if his kids ever say to him when people stop him or look at him on the street: ‘Daddy — are you Johnny Sexton?’

“I think it confuses them a little bit.”

I ask Johnny did it ever confuse him. The fame. The attention. Does it take away from being a sportsman?

“No, I don’t think so. I think it is something that takes a bit of getting used to at the start.”

People having an opinion on him when they don’t know him?

“That can be the hard part.”

Why is it hard?

“Because they don’t know you. They are assuming you are a certain way because of the way you may look on the pitch or you get criticism because of how you act in certain situations. But look...”

How does he think people see him?

“I don’t really mind how people see me.”

Talking to this bona fide legend of Irish sport is like playing chess. He is extremely guarded at first, before slowly, very slowly, opening up and becoming warm and candid, funny even.

There is a story that when Johnny Sexton got engaged in the summer of 2012 to his childhood sweetheart — and girlfriend of some 10 years — schoolteacher Laura Priestley, he texted his family the good news.

“About time,” came the reply.

Laura and Johnny married on July 12, 2013 at the Holy Trinity Abbey Church in Adare, Co Limerick. His wife is now married to someone who is public property in Ireland.

“I think she is used to that. I think what frustrates her is the one thing that sometimes frustrates me: that is people criticise your perceived personality.”

What is his perceived personality?

“It depends on who you ask. There are people who would know me very well; they might perceive me different to how a journalist might see me if I came off the pitch against Italy this year when I kicked a ball in frustration.”

Is that not passion?

“It depends who you ask.”

He kicked out because he was pissed off?

“Well, my last action was a mistake,” Johnny says referring to Ireland’s game in Rome last February, “where I passed the ball to someone and they took their hands away thinking it was for someone else. It makes it look like I’d made a mistake. So I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that the game didn’t go well. I’m frustrated that I hurt myself a little bit. I had lots of frustrations. I didn’t think the cameras were on me. So people automatically then criticise you for that because it is not a good example for kids, but there is other stuff that I do away from the pitch that is a good example. I don’t go and publicise it.”

Is he religious? Does he have faith?

“Yeah, I do. I was brought up with faith, and religion is part of that. My granny and grandad are from Kerry and when we were in Kerry we were always brought to Mass. We were always brought to Mass when we were in Dublin with my mum and dad. Yeah, faith was definitely part of it,” Johnny says, adding that his Granny Brenda’s shop is next door to John B Keane’s pub in Listowel... “So my father and John B’s son Billy were best friends. Billy is my godfather. There is a good connection there; I spent all my summers in Listowel and Ballybunion.”

His own summer holidays this year will be three weeks break after the rugby season ends.

“I’ll spend some of it at home in Dublin. Then I’ll get away with the family to Portugal for a week. Then we’re back training for a while. Then we’ll go away for another week’s holiday. I’ll probably go over and back to Portugal.”

What is it like at Christmas? Everyone puts on half at stone. Does Johnny?

“Well, you can’t do that. But you can enjoy Christmas. Sometimes you’ll have a game on Stephen’s Day. There have been days when I have gone out and practised my kicking on Christmas morning because I have had a game the next day and you feel that you need to do that. But there have been other times when I have been totally off and I haven’t had to do anything for three or four days at Christmas.”

Does he sing at parties?

“You are sometimes forced to sing in rugby circles.”

And what would he sing?

“My only one is Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger.”

Asked why he choose that, Johnny says: “It’s just one of my favourite songs.”

The 6ft 2in Irish place kicker loves music and has been to relatively recent concerts like Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and the Kings Of Leon. One of the first gigs he went to was Adele at the Olympia in 2011, “which was pretty special”.

Does he have a blowout occasionally? Does he let go sometimes?

“Of course, you have to. But it is always at the end of campaigns for us. When we finish the Six Nations. Sometimes when we start the Six Nations we will meet up and have a few drinks together. Or at the end of a European Cup campaign.”

Is it difficult for Laura because she is cooking and living with this super-fit sportsman with a healthy eating regime?

“I don’t think so. I think she’s used to it at this stage. We’ve been together for so long now that, yeah, she is used to living with a professional sports person. I’m sure it’s had its ups and downs from her point of view.”

Man of the match in Leinster’s 30-12 defeat of Toulouse last month in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final, Johnny — who will captain the defending champions next Saturday against Saracens in the final — says that when he was 11 or 12 he “started going to all the rugby games. The first player I really remember was Simon Geoghegan. He was the first big superstar,” says something of a superstar himself Johnny Sexton.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2015, Peter Smyth, head coach at St Mary’s College RFC in South Dublin, recalled how “even as a 17 to 18-year-old Jonno was out practising all the time. Come wind, hail or rain. Jonno has an unbelievable drive and will to win. Unbelievable. I haven’t seen it surpassed”.

Where did that will to win come from?

“I was always into sport, whether it was golf or tennis as a young guy, or rugby. I was playing rugby from a young age. I don’t know where that came from. My parents had a lot of brothers and sisters who played sport. My Uncle Willie [Sexton] played for Ireland. He was a flanker. Knowing he played for Ireland was probably in my head. My grandfather [John] was an international golfer, that was in my head,” Johnny says, not even mentioning that his dad played for Bective, as did his uncle Mark. “So, I was maybe trying to follow them.”

The skinny young kid from Rathgar did that and more, becoming World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018.

At what age did Johnny, who is an ambassador for Laya Healthcare, start to think that this might be something he would like to do with his life?

“It’s very hard to pinpoint. I think it was when I was 13 at school when I started to take rugby seriously,” says Johnny who was born on July 11, 1985 and who scored a famous drop goal for St Mary’s in the final moments of Leinster Senior Schools’ cup final win in 2002.

He made his debut as a sub for Leinster in 2006 against Border Reivers; won his first cap for Ireland against Fiji at the RDS in Dublin in November 2009.

It didn’t come easy, he remembers. “When I was coming through, I didn’t have it all my own way. I was a young guy. I had to work hard to get into the Leinster team. I had to work hard to get my first professional contract. All those things. As far as the drive, I suppose not having it easy at the start gave me a taste of the other side of the coin.”

Does it become more difficult as he gets older, with injuries, etc?

“No. I’ve been very lucky with injuries, despite...” he says, stopping. “If you listen to the media and the press you’d swear I’d never strung games together. We were only talking the other day about how many caps different guys have had. I have actually surprised myself with how many professional games I’ve played considering when you listen to some of the things that are out there. You know that I’ve had ‘this amount of injuries’? Whatever. But I’ve played quite a few professional games. I’ve played 83 for Ireland. Close to 160 for Leinster. Forty for Racing Metro when I was in Paris for two years. And I’ve played a few times for the Lions. Throw in some Ireland A games. So I have played quite a lot of professional games.”

How did he feel when he won World Player of the Year?

“It was a very special honour to get. But it is people’s opinion. You could have very easily not have won it. I was the only Irish guy on the list, arguably there could have been one or two other guys, and maybe they would have got it. But I’d rather win a World Cup than be World Player of the Year. That would be my take on it. But it is a very special honour to get; not too many northern hemisphere guys have won it. So I was very privileged. Now it is just about concentrating on what’s in store over the next few months.”

What about the next few years? Has he any idea what he’ll do when he does retire?

“No. No plans. I have a commerce degree. [Bachelor of Commerce from University College Dublin.] So whether I get away from rugby totally or whether I go into a bit of coaching, I’m not sure. It’s hard to know when I’ll finish. I don’t know when that will be, and what age our kids will be. If you want to go coaching, you have to go abroad.”

How will Johnny deal with retirement? How will that affect his head?

“I think retirement is one of the biggest worries for all professional players. What are you going to do? Because it is very uncertain. My retirement could be tomorrow. It could be in a month’s time. You don’t know. Because you are only an injury away from never being able to play the game again. I’ve seen that with other players. For me, I was very close to Jamie Heaslip, who was probably the most professional player that I have played with. He did everything right. He played an unbelievable amount of games and then in one incident, he doesn’t play again. One tackle of a bag, not even in a game, in a training incident. It’s sad and that’s the biggest worry for us.”

Does his wife and kids worry that he could get badly injured or hurt in a game? Johnny got four bangs in the head in 2014 and neurologist Jean-Francois Chermann told him to take some time off.

“That was a pre-emptive measure. But looking back, I wish I didn’t do it, because I have been labelled with it. The stigma, the label of it is that I’ve had concussion, but, like I said, I’ve actually been very lucky with injuries.”

But it is still a sport when you could get a bang on the head and be seriously injured.

“That’s what I am talking about. That’s the worries that we have as professional players. Our livelihood can be gone like that. And something that we love to do can be over. So you just have to try and cherish it and make the most of it.”

Does Johnny ever get frightened in a game when some of the opposition forwards, who look like something from the dead army of Game of Thrones, are charging after him?

“I think when you’re in the middle of a game, you don’t think of things like that. It’s before games that you can have the nagging doubts.”

To paraphrase Maximus in Gladiator, what Johnny Sexton does in life on the pitch for Ireland and Leinster, echoes in eternity. Can he play back certain kicks down through the years in his head? Are they up there?

“Yeah. I remember a lot of what goes on on the pitch; some good, some bad. They’re all in there. They’re all mixed in. Like I said, there have been some incredible highs over the 13 years I have been professional. There have been some incredible lows.”

The key is: learn from both?

“Yeah. Cherish the good times, learn from the bad times. That’s the key. Sometimes the good times are just shortly after the bad times. That’s what gets you through the tough times. You know that there are so many good times just around the corner.”

Does his dad give him advice on rugby?

“Yeah, he does. Family are great for support. But I think the best advice comes sometimes from the coaches that I am involved with, whether it is Joe [Schmidt] with Ireland or [Leinster coaches] Andy Farrell or Stuart Lancaster. Or sometimes I can ring up coaches that I’ve had in the past and say: ‘Look, I’ve been doing this and I feel like I’ve been preparing well but things haven’t been going quite this way. Any thoughts from the outside looking in?’ I have some great support from former internationals, guys who know the game. Ollie Campbell texted me after games; Mick Quinn lives down the road from me. He is one of my biggest supporters.”

What do they say to you?

“They give you a more balanced view on things than the media.”

You are either brilliant or, according to the media, shit?

“There is never an in-between. And often you need the in-between. For years I never looked at media because at the start I did look at media and I found it quite tough to deal with. When I was trying to break into the Irish team, Ronan O’Gara was breaking in and there was a lot of stuff in the media. I found that hard to cope with. So I met people and they said, ‘Just stay away from it’. I stayed away from it for years. I think at times last year when things were going so well — we won the Grand Slam, the European Cup, the League — and you fall into the trap of going and looking [sighs], then it is shortly followed by some bad press... and then realise you’re not going to get away from it.

“You hear athletes saying ‘I don’t care what the media say’. But I do care. Because I know that they influence public opinion and all that. So I actually do care what they say and that’s why I don’t read it, because I don’t want to hear it… That’s why you can’t get drawn into that. When things are going well...” he says trailing off.

“There were some games last year it was written that I was the best thing ever and I felt that I hadn’t had a good game. You know what I mean? And there were times this year when I have made a couple of mistakes and I have actually done some really good things in the game and I’m getting slated, destroyed. I stay away from the opinion or the media that’s out there.

“Then there will be people who will come up to me in the street and say, ‘I hope you are OK. You are getting terrible abuse’. And I’m thinking: ‘Now I do know what they’re saying!’”

All we are saying Johnny is: bring home the Heineken Cup next weekend.

Johnny Sexton is an ambassador for laya healthcare, the official health and wellbeing partners to Leinster Rugby. Laya recently released ‘The Sexton Series’ — a three-part digital series that revealed never-before-seen insights into various areas of Johnny’s life; from his playing career, to his mindset to his personal values and life outside rugby. This series can be seen on the laya’s Facebook page, Twitter and YouTube channels — @LayaHealthcare.

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