Tuesday 12 December 2017

Kimmage on Sexton miss : 'God knows what thoughts were peppering his head'

Johnny Sexton will have been his own harshest critic this last week

Johnny Sexton: Bad November
Johnny Sexton: Bad November
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Just over a year ago, on September 15, 2012 to be precise, Jonathan Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll were travelling to a einster game in Treviso when they got embroiloed in a debate about the legend of Ronan O'Gara.

BOD has always been a huge O'Gara fan and marvelled at his ability to produce under pressure. Sexton was reminding him that it hadn't happened overnight.

"He missed a big penalty against Northampton in the 2000 Heineken Cup final."

"Yeah, fair enough."

"And a couple of misses in the final against Leicester two years later."

"Okay, right."

"It's overcoming those disappointments that made ROG as a player and makes his match-winning moments all the more impressive."

"Yeah, I never thought about it that way," O'Driscoll conceded.

A few hours later, as he was lining up a late drop-goal against Treviso, the conversation returned to Sexton's head. "I'm in the pocket setting things up and while I'm picking my spot, I'm also thinking, 'Christ, myself and Drico were only talking about this a few hours ago on the bus to the stadium.' It's incredible the things that can pop into your head sometimes. Anyway, I nailed it, and we won. And when the final whistle went, part of me was thinking, 'Stick that in your book, Brian.'"

Sexton does a lot of thinking. A few weeks ago in Paris, he showed me a couple of notebooks he has kept since arriving at Racing Metro and the detail was extraordinary. "You should see some of the Leinster ones," he smiled. "I'm like that guy (John Forbes Nash) from A Beautiful Mind."

Or take Becoming a Lion, his diary of a season. The month is October 2012 and he is playing against Munster at the Aviva Stadium.

"A weird thing happened during the game tonight. I was standing over a penalty during the first half, all lined up and ready to go, when this thought popped into my head: 'Is Warren Gatland watching this kick?' I call it weird, but then it's not really weird because stuff like this happens fairly regularly. I could be standing over a really important kick and suddenly I imagine Laura or my mum, with their heads in their hands, unable to watch. Then I just snap out of it and get on with the job."

The month is April 2013 and he's playing against Biarritz in the RDS.

"I had another one of those surreal place-kicking moments during the first half yesterday . . . I had a penalty shot lined up when the breeze suddenly picked up from the left, so I waited as long as I could get away with for it to die down. Then I could hear one of the Biarritz players – I think it was [Dimitri] Yachvili – complaining to the ref, Wayne Barnes, that I had gone over the allotted time. Soixante seconds, monsieur! Soixante seconds! And so I find myself in French translation mode, instead of concentrating on my job. I lost my routine and ended up rushing the kick and tugged it badly to the left. A complete mis-hit. Merde!"

The month is July, 2013 and he has just scored a try for the Lions in the final test in Sydney.

"A confession. As I was running around behind the goal-posts to score the most important try of my career, who popped into my head? Only ROG. Will he ever stop haunting me? (Only kidding, Rog.)

"Specifically, I was reminded of the time he hopped over advertising hoardings after scoring at Lansdowne Road and went to commune with the Munster supporters. Was I considering a reprise? Happily, it never became an issue, because Kurtley Beale bumped me just after I'd touched down so I was off balance and in no shape for any fancy celebrations."

Brian O'Driscoll knows him better than most. "Johnny is very much of the Pádraig Harrington ilk," he says. "He's a sports geek. He's intense. He inhales it. I can't do that. I can only take so much of the game: 'Okay, enough now, let's go and have a cup of tea and talk about birds, or the weather, or anything.' But with Johnny, you can really see that he takes it all in. He's just made differently."

God knows what thoughts were peppering his head last Sunday as he lined up the kick that would have sunk the All Blacks but I share a few of mine as I held my head in my hands.

'Come on . . . Come on . . . Come on.'

'Please . . . Please . . . Please.'

'Where's his poor mother sitting? What's his poor mother thinking?'

'Jeeze, the silence is deafening!'

'Forget history, Johnny, just do this for yourself.'

'Who's that gobshite shouting in the crowd?'

'Kick it, Johnny, come on.'

'Please, please, please.'

'Come on, Johnny, come on.'

'Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!'

God knows what tortures have afflicted him since. He wasn't the only Irishman to blink during those final, fateful minutes – Conor Murray anyone? Ian Madigan? Jack McGrath? – but he's the one we'll remember for years to come. Or at least until the spell is broken.

It's Friday evening. I'm sitting in a car with Eamon Dunphy travelling north to Belfast. "Have you a piece in for Sunday?" he asks.

"I'm doing a column on Johnny Sexton and how much he'll be hurting this week after that missed penalty."

"He missed one in the first half as well," he observes.

"It hit the post," I reply.

"He missed," he insists.

And in that moment, I realise how much I like Johnny Sexton because it almost hurts to say. But I do. Because it's true.

"Yeah, he missed."

Sunday Independent

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