Jonny Sexton: 'Maybe I rated myself too highly'
From afar, it looked like a high-stakes game of poker, one side gently bluffing the other, both allergic to a backward glance.
But Jonny Sexton felt as if he was dying a little. With every passing day, the possibility of leaving Leinster became a more credible notion and that was never what he wanted. The whispers about France seemed always to be intercepted by knowing smiles.
Good man Jonny!
Another Drico in Biarritz moment, right?
For jaysus sake, just sign!
People assumed the two sides were talking, edging closer. But there was nothing on the table. At the end of last season, he'd begun looking for something long-term. At the start of the new one, he was still looking. By the commencement of the autumn internationals, he recalls "nobody wanted to talk."
Within the dressing-room, contracts are private business, innuendo king. Team-mates devour rumour, recycling it as their daily cabaret. It was "all good fun," Jonny says, before adding pointedly "from their point of view."
The November series came and went, but still no real dialogue. There had been ongoing interest from clubs in the Top 14, so he flew to Paris with Laura (Priestley, his fiancee) and his agent Fintan Drury. When they were shown around the new, state-of-the-art facilities of Racing Metro, their eyes almost popped out of their heads.
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They looked, too, at a couple of other French clubs, but this was a no-brainer. As he recalls, Racing existed on another stratosphere. And their President, Jacky Lorenzetti, made clear their desire to sign him, putting a remarkable offer on the table.
"It was," he recalls, "a case of this will be the club that I would go to if things didn't work out here."
If, if, if ...
The season slipped into January. Still no movement. Leinster finished their Heineken Cup group games and he went into Six Nations camp with Ireland. The unthinkable was becoming thinkable. His head was fried. He believed Ireland could have a massive tournament and wanted this out of the way.
So Jonny, essentially, called time.
"I said: 'Listen, I'll make a decision the week before the Wales game, one way or the other'," he remembers now. "I felt I had to do that, because I couldn't go into the Six Nations with this on my mind.
"So, I said: 'If you want to make the offer, put it on the table, so that I have two offers and I can make my decision then.'"
He wasn't looking for the IRFU to match the money on offer in Paris, they couldn't do that. But he did hope they'd grant him parity with the highest earner on Leinster's books. That hope was innocent. The offer finally came through, leaving him little option but to go.
Within a couple of hours, the Union issued their statement and, instantly, he was a story on the news. Sexton remembers driving out of Carton House that evening, his phone lighting up like a Christmas tree with messages and, mainly, questions.
Is this for real Jonny?
You just playing hard-ball here?
Say it isn't so ...
And that was when the weight of it all came thundering in upon him. He wanted to respond, but couldn't find the words.
"I remember getting upset about it, because it was strange," he recalls.
"I never thought it would happen. I honestly thought it would just get done."
HE sits in the St Mary's clubhouse on Templeville Road, retracing the small detail of a story he never believed would get written.
Sexton is at that stage of his life where no two days are the same anymore, a young man desperate to finish his Leinster career by bringing his trophy haul with the province to six. After that, he will head to Australia as a likely Test out-half with the Lions, come home to marry Laura in July, then bring his wife to Paris for their new life.
It took time to recalibrate his mind, but the thought of Top 14 rugby has begun to thrill him now. Sexton will, reputedly, be the highest-paid player in France, a man Lorenzetti plans to build Racing's bid for their first title since 1990 around. Other high-profile players like fellow Lions, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate, have been recruited too.
But Sexton is the marquee signing. The man Racing believe can make them fly.
You sense, though, that part of him will never leave Leinster and that isn't a notion he denies. "I always pictured myself being 35 or 36, having played for just the one club," he smiles. "That was always in my head. I always admired people that were like that.
"I know people will label me a mercenary maybe. There'll probably be a few out there ...
"It's very difficult for me to talk about it to be honest, because Leinster has been everything to me since I was 19, trying to get in the team. As a rugby player, I loved where I was in Leinster, working with one of the best coaches in the world, playing with my best friends in an incredible team.
"You know, there was no reason for wanting to go out and look at other things."
Sexton is keen to stress that there has been no falling-out with the Union, no sense of alienation on either side. What happened was simply business.
"Like, I get on very well with the people in the IRFU," he argues. "They're doing what they think is best for Irish rugby and I suppose I'm trying to do my best for myself obviously. But it doesn't seem to happen in other countries that have the same structures as we have here in terms of ... "
His voice trails off, before he re-gathers his thoughts.
"Maybe I rated myself too highly, I don't know. I obviously wanted to be on a par with the best players here and that wasn't happening. That's their (the IRFU's) prerogative.
"I mean I sourced a couple of people and asked: 'Listen, am I getting ahead of myself here? Am I in that bracket of player? Or am I in the second tier with the other guys?'
"Again, it's a difficult situation to talk about. From the start, it was always about trying to get the best deal that you can get, a deal that matches other players I suppose. Obviously the Union are under restrictions and certain financial strains and all that, they've got to look after themselves.
"Listen, I'm big enough to realise that they made a decision based on ... they didn't want to put me in that bracket and that's fair enough. There's literally no hard feelings. They've done what they feel is best. I suppose they'll have three Irish qualified out-halves playing with the provinces next year and one playing abroad. That's one extra out-half playing Heineken Cup rugby.
"You know, it could be a good thing, it could benefit the Irish team."
Jonny Sexton wanted to stay, that is irrefutable. But he wanted, too, to be recognised as more than just a cog in a wheel. With three Heineken Cups won and clearly established as one of the world's most commanding No 10s, he believed that that status should be recognised in his salary.
The Union, though, never quite took to engaging with him on that level. Had they given him a deal to match the best within the Leinster dressing-room – even though it would have fallen roughly €150,000 per annum below what he is reported to be getting in Paris – Sexton would have stayed.
But, when he had to jump, he did.
"Having made the decision, I put in a couple of phonecalls, half-thinking, I suppose, that something might still get done," he reflects. "But they just wished me luck. I suppose they were nice about it, they said: 'Look we wish you the best of luck and hope you come back and play for the Ireland team.'
"And that was it. A press release went out and I suppose, even then, when you say that you're making the decision to move on, you still think 'Ah, something will happen!' You hear stories of deals getting turned around at the last moment.
"But now that I've had time to let it settle in ... and again it's hard to talk about because I want the Leinster supporters to understand ... but I'm going to put everything into Racing next season, the season after and however long that I'm there.
"My goal when I get there is to win the Top 14 and Heineken Cup with them. I'll show people when I get there how well I want to do for my new club. People will label me whatever they want to now, but judge how much it means to me next year when I play there."
Racing have already helped himself and Laura find a place to live and he has met with the new coaches, Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, recruited from Castres. They have made clear their intention, no matter the number of English-speaking players in the dressing-room, to coach through French.
Sexton did French for his Leaving Cert, but is now taking three one-hour sessions a week with a UCD lecturer as well as sitting at his home computer, putting on headphones and sliding in the Rosetta Stone CD.
He's noted how Jonny Wilkinson makes a point at Toulon of always delivering his captain's speech in French. The way Sexton sees it, you either immerse yourself in the local culture or you fail.
He has spoken at length with former team-mate and current Grenoble defence coach, Bernard Jackman, on that very issue. And he has exchanged texts with Welsh centre Roberts about their common autumn destination. The fact that both Roberts and Lydiate will be with the Lions in Australia encourages him to believe they can have a shared bond by the time they pitch up together in Paris.
Some people have taken, naturally, to questioning him about the physical relentlessness of week-in, week-out Top 14 rugby, the demands made on his body if Racing decide he must play almost every game. And Sexton smiles at the notion.
Because, on one level, to him that sounds like heaven.
"I think everyone knows I don't like being rested when I'm fit," he says. "I remember having talks with Declan (Kidney), because I came out in a couple of interviews and said I'd prefer to be playing when fit. Because I've had a couple of experiences where, if you've been off for two weeks, you might pick up a niggle, then you're trying to play through it because you know you've only got a couple of games before you're rested again.
"I kind of said: 'Listen, would it not be better just to play when I'm fit and, if I'm playing too much, you can pull me for a game?'
"I love to play. That's my favourite thing, obviously, but I suppose I'm not going to a club that only has, you know, 25 top-class players. I'm going to a club that has two players in every position, so I'm not going to play every game.
"Or maybe I will. If I'm fit, I'll be happy to play and, again, they've got great medical facilities and staff over there."
The international release clauses inserted in his Racing contract go above and beyond the basic IRB stipulations. And Joe Schmidt's appointment as new Irish coach should, presumably, not be an impediment to Sexton's continued involvement in international rugby.
He speaks glowingly of Schmidt's attitude in recent months towards his personal circumstance. "Joe knew where I stood," he says. "I kept in regular contact with him. At no stage did our relationship get affected by anything. I was up front with him and he always knew what I wanted and what I expected.
"I think that's most important that the people that are close to you know, your team-mates, Joe, management, friends, family. They know what happened and that's most important to me.
"Joe was always very good to me. He always made it clear that he wanted me to stay. But at the same time, when it happened, he was so incredible. He just said to me: 'This is an incredible opportunity to go and achieve something with a new team, learn a new language, a new culture, everything ... '
"He said 'You'll love it!' For him to do that was incredible. It would have been easy for him, you know, for our relationship to break down and just to not pick me again for the rest of the season, just leave me to sit on the sideline.
"And if he did, I would have had no complaints."
BY THE time he boards that Lions plane to Australia, Sexton desperately hopes to have added two more trophies to his haul with Leinster.
Saturday's Pro12 victory over Glasgow means that his last two games with the province will now be finals. Given that injury wrecked his Six Nations campaign, he is thankful that the season remains so vibrant with possibility.
The day Warren Gatland announced his Lions squad, Sexton chose to stick with routine. That Tuesday was a 'rest-day' for Leinster and, on 'rest-days', Sexton likes to take himself to the RDS for kicking practice. That process was not for negotiation now.
To do otherwise might have been tempting fate and he felt he'd done quite enough of that two weeks earlier with an adidas photo-shoot in London that required Sexton and a few others to pose in the Lions kit.
"Listen guys, have ye been told that we're going?" he asked one of the PR people present.
"No, we've been told nothing!"
"Well why are we here then?"
"Basically, because we have to guess!"
That made him intensely uncomfortable and he had no intention now of reprising the emotion by sitting in front of a television, waiting to see if he'd made the 'cut'. So that morning at the RDS, they put their phones aside and went kicking. Maybe half an hour into the session, curiosity then got the better of him.
"It's hard to describe what I felt," he reflects honestly. "I mean, two weeks before, I suppose I wasn't playing at all. So you're thinking: 'Will he announce an unfit player in the squad?' That was going through my head. So, yeah, it was a dream come true to make it. But I suppose the feeling if you weren't in the squad would be crazy sad."
He was on holiday in Portugal for the '09 tour, watching the First and Second Tests from a bar beside his apartment. This time, it looks like he might have a seat at the controls. Sexton's view is that he will have to earn it.
"I think that's the beauty of the Lions," he says. "This will be Brian's (O'Driscoll) fourth tour and he was probably the most nervous he's ever been about whether he was going. I'd have been asking him through the year about how he coped with the hype around the Lions.
"And he said there was never hype like this before. So it's exciting. But I haven't been able to sit down and really think about it yet, because I've games to play with Leinster. In my head, I really want to finish on a high over the next few weeks.
"If I could say I played my part in Leinster winning six trophies, I'd be really happy with what I achieved here."