Saturday 16 February 2019

'I didn't know it was going be picked up on mic' - Johnny Sexton explains ref 'hate' comments

Johnny Sexton's role as Leinster captain will be an interesting journey for him and for referees

Referee Pascal Gauzère after showing Johnny Sexton his yellow card Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Referee Pascal Gauzère after showing Johnny Sexton his yellow card Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton of Leinster during the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Leinster and Saracens at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At the tail end of the campaign, the quote of the season was delivered not at a post-match press conference, but in the heat of battle.

Typically we get the best lines from players immediately after the final whistle, when their hearts are beating so fast they whizz past the caution button. Courtesy of the ref mic we got this one even earlier: when in the third Test in Australia this summer captain Peter O'Mahony left the field and the armband passed to Johnny Sexton.

"I know you hate me, but you have to talk to me." For referee Pascal Gauzerre it was like a bouncer discovering that the gobby git at the door was, in fact, on the VIP list.

"I didn't know it was going be picked up on mic," Sexton says. "But it wasn't out of nowhere. In one of the games he was touch judge and he said something which we heard in the review. I was (captain) at the time and he was telling the ref not to speak to me. I'm thinking: 'Why would you not speak to the captain if you want to ask about something?' So I just presumed he didn't like me. But it was nothing personal. There never is. It's just if I see something."

There are a few things that arise straight away from Sexton's appointment as Leinster captain. Firstly, it is the perfect antidote to the sleeping sickness that might wash over a group in the wake of a stellar season featuring a unique double of Champions Cup and Guinness Pro14. The notion of Sexton settling for one arm being as long as the other is unthinkable.

Secondly, it puts referees under pressure in Leinster games. When playmakers do as playmakers do, and moan at refs, the same ref can always warn the captain that he's had enough, and the man needs to calm down. When that man is the captain, with a massive profile, it puts the conversation on another level. Few things in match coverage are more annoying than when the commentator talks over a conversation between a ref and a player. They might tone it down when Sexton is in the frame.

"I always go into the game with really good intentions," he says. "At times I've let it spill over. I don't argue with every decision but if I see something that I feel is blatant, sometimes I can't help myself. As a 10, you are quite close to everything. It's something that I obviously need to manage better now that I'm captain. I have a bigger responsibility to talk to refs more productively. It's probably a good thing for me that I can now actually speak (legitimately) to them."

With some that was never a problem. In the Champions Cup quarter-final against Wasps last season, for example, he managed to get Nigel Owens (Below) to refer to the TMO when Willie le Roux had seemingly scored a good try. Owens' first reaction was to tell Sexton to give it a rest. Nonetheless, he referred the case, and was happy to rule in Leinster's favour when the video evidence revealed a dodgy touchdown.

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26 December 2017; Referee Nigel Owens during the Guinness PRO14 Round 11 match between Munster and Leinster at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Thirdly, it sounds like at 33 years of age, Sexton was getting a bit antsy about whether enough people wanted him to actually get the gig at all. Apart from his two seasons in France, Sexton has been at Leinster for his entire career. Since he took over from Felipe Contepomi in 2009 he has been a huge figure in the group. But captaincy came only in fits and starts. And his honesty in explaining that delay augurs well for how he will handle the job.

"I've had discussions with various coaches over the years about doing it, maybe since I was 26 or 27 and for one reason or another, I haven't been given it," he says. "But it didn't bother me too much because if you're captain, you want to be sure that everybody wants you there. You don't want to be sat there wondering if half the guys do and half the guys don't. If they had any doubts about me I was happy not to take the role, but now I'm delighted to accept it and hopefully do a good job."

Clearly his game time in blue is going to be different to that of his predecessor, Isa Nacewa. At the Ireland camp earlier this month it was pointed out to the players that between now and boarding the World Cup flight for Japan they would be playing probably 27-30 games max. Sexton played 23 games last season - outside of Test rugby, Europe and interpros, the only other Pro14 game he played was against Edinburgh. Given his new role will he feel a bit more heat to be seen more often on the field?

"A little bit, yeah, but people question how much you can play and the Irish management might question that, but when you throw yourself into something like the Lions tour when I look at playing three games in one week - 55 minutes three times in one week, (subbed twice, started once) it's amazing what you can do. I went through that whole tour and people questioned whether I could tour at all because I wasn't durable.

"I find sometimes when I play more, I play better. I find that I actually become more durable. I actually get used to playing the games, as opposed to two games on, two games off or two games on, one game off. And then when you do pick up a knock, which is inevitable in the game that we play, you're going to miss a couple of weeks and then you can rehab and work away guilt-free. There's nothing worse than when you've got two weeks off - according to player management - and then you pick up a knock and you've got another two weeks off and suddenly you're a month without playing. That's a long time in a season."

It will be the second or third round of the Pro14 when he can kick off his personal contribution towards another stellar season. And thankfully he's on course for that with a clean bill of health.

"I was in a great position of finishing the tour (intact). I had a rib injury but I didn't have any surgery. I didn't have to spend any time in a sling or a splint so I could hit the ground running this pre-season which was great for me. I came back a little bit early and worked with Enda King (head of rehab in Santry Sports Surgery Clinic). I really like working with him so for a few days at the end of my holidays I worked with him just to get a head start on pre-season. Then I came back and I've had a really good pre-season. Hopefully we will see the benefits of that as opposed to two years ago when I dislocated my shoulder - out for four months. Last year, broke my wrist, in a cast for six weeks or whatever it was. It impacts on everything that you do so it's nice to get a run at it. Touch wood, I feel as good as I have felt in years. Hopefully I get the benefits of it now."

Another series of Love/Hate is about to kick off.

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