Monday 21 May 2018

Leinster's magic man - Johnny Sexton is ready to step up and provide the calming assurance needed for his side to deliver

Johnny Sexton arrives to the Leinster captain’s run at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton arrives to the Leinster captain’s run at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

At times when the turmoil takes hold, he knows that the safest place for him is to simply let its waves engulf him. There can be peace there, too.

Thoughts have been Johnny Sexton’s most dangerous enemy all week.

His old mates in Paris. His old mates in Dublin. The kids he has and the kid he will have. Leinster. The first time. The last time. This time. Too much time. Too many thoughts.

Sleep has been difficult, the nerves are worse than ever. Sometimes he’d just love to be able to flick a switch.

Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and their Leinster team-mates in Bilbao yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and their Leinster team-mates in Bilbao yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

And so to escape the storm, he must embrace it.

You ask him how he might feel this morning as he wakes up to face the day and all that’s in it.

“The morning of a final? The week of a final!

“Going training, going kicking, they’re all the things that really get your mind off the game, if that makes sense,” he tells us.

“It distracts you while focuses you at the same time, which sounds a bit strange. But that’s when I’m at my calmest.

“And then it’s when you get home. And you’ve lots of time to yourself. It’s that you’ve got to worry about.

“I suppose the older you get the nerves probably get worse. But the way to deal with them is probably a little better.”

Can it really be nine years since he was telling Johnny O’Hagan to get away out of that and bring him the right tee and everyone in Croker waited for what seemed like an hour until he smacked the ball over the bar?

Can this really be the same kid from that first final against Leicester with Brian O’Driscoll and the rest of them looking on and saying to themselves ‘This is a European final and this fella is f**king trying drop-goals?’

Fears

Felipe Contepomi recognises both men; the one who didn’t seem to have a care in the world in 2009 and this version of the self, with all the nagging fears and doubts and dreams and hopes racing like a Kentucky Derby in his head.

And he knows, too, that is not just about one day.

“You could see back then he was already prepared to step up to the occasion, it wasn’t just about that one day, we were working for so long together and I could see that improvement,” says the Argentinean, whose fateful injury in that semi-final against Munster propelled Sexton from shadow to a spotlight that has glared ever since.

“It was no accident he had a great final. And it has all kicked on from there.”

Sexton and Leinster would win another two European finals before 2012 but none since.

With every passing year his worth to the side increased even though his value did not and then the day came when he felt he had to leave to become appreciated.

And where did he end up? With a gang of the same lads who will confront him in the San Mames Stadium. The big wheels always turn.

He cried before he left Dublin and there were times in Paris when he’d think of just packing it in and coming home with Laura and the baby but other days when himself and Rog would be carving out a plan and he’d think ‘Yeah, Johnny, you can do this.’

Racing were trying to build a winning culture but it couldn’t happen quickly enough for Sexton the player and even his old adversary,  Ronan O’Gara the coach, recalled his patience wearing thin at times.

“At training in Ireland you drop a ball, it’s like, scamper, get down on it. In France, they puff their cheeks. The ball is left there. The coach throws another one in. In an Irish team it would be, ‘Get the ball you f**king p***k!”

The club overflowed with ambition and talent and stadium plans but they kept dropping the ball.

Sexton would return to Leinster after two years when everyone realised that he had indeed been unappreciated by those who paid his wages before he left. They wouldn’t make the same mistake this time.

The club he left would continue to appreciate him too, even after he’d gone; Laurent Travers recalls him warmly and the respect he feels infuses his obvious appreciation of the out-half as the crucial personality in today’s contest.

“He is the key player with Ireland and Leinster,” says Travers. “He is their leader. He is an essential in this Leinster team.

“He launches all the attacks and performs that linking operation between the forwards and the backs that binds the whole performance together.”

Sexton will know them and they will know him.

“Is it an advantage for them or an advantage for me?” he wonders. “Look, they’re going to know me pretty well, I’d know a lot of their players but they have a very different squad since I was there, they have a few different coaches and they play a lot different.

“It will be a special game for me, obviously I’m playing against a lot of my friends, a lot of the staff that would have worked there for those few years, the administration staff and all those people that haven’t seen in a few years.

“I’ll be looking forward to catching up with them after the game.”

Travers pauses as he seeks to sum him up. “He just sets the tone.”

O’Gara knew that Sexton could help infuse that culture to bear in Paris if only they had enough time.

“He’s challenging, he’s difficult, he’s exactly what you want as a young coach. He’s not going to just be a nodding dog. He wants to know why things are done.

“He’ll say something and I’ll say, ‘No, that’s the way I’m doing it’ and he’ll accept that it’s great to be challenged.”

And when Sexton returned to Leinster he knew that a lot of stuff needed to be challenged.

He knew what it had taken to flatten the mountain the first time around but wasn’t sure if enough of the squad were willing to make the climb again.

But now they are ready to plant the flag on the summit once more. One more push. Knowing how far they’ve come to being so near.

“I’ve been pretty nervous all week. You wake up the week of a big game and you feel different. Sleep can be a struggle, the nerves can be a struggle.

“You’ve just got to try and focus your attention to getting what’s important right, your preparation, putting all your energy into that, leaving all the distractions and all the hype and trying to park it.

“Trying to avoid the things that drag you off during the week, that get you dreaming and get you thinking about things that you shouldn’t be thinking about.

“That’s where your mind wanders during the week, it takes you different places.

“Why do you want to win the game? Is it for Isa’s last European game or the injured guys?

“But at the end of the day, none of that really matters, it’s about performing and if you think about the last time you won a trophy or how long it’s been, it’s a distraction.

“I suppose you’ve got to use them as motivation a little bit, but you’ve got to make sure you park them because everything comes down to your performance.

“Ultimately, if you want to feel fulfilled at the end of the game, you want to play well as an individual and you’ve got to make the team play well and you’ve to win.”

Ability

Contepomi wouldn’t harbour any doubts that Sexton’s ability to dominate by the sheer force of his personality can produce the performance his side will require.

“He’s one of the best in the world. What is amazing about him is he is always trying to find a way to get better.

“Before it was about individual magic, now it is about making others play better. That speaks so highly of him.

“He is one of the outstanding tens of the last decade. He has still got it and is getting better and better without all the wisdom of the position he has under his belt.

“It is great to see him still showing the magic.”

Sexton is primed to weave his spell.

Irish Independent

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