In part one of three articles, Tom Sexton opens up on what it is like trying to make it at Leinster
This is the true story of a hometown hero who crashed at Leinster and burned out in Australia.
Tom Sexton was showered with all the accolades as captain of Belvedere College's 2008 Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning squad, ushered into the Leinster Academy as part of the pre-ordained pathway.
Life couldn't have been any better, the Ireland U20s there to smooth the transition from school to professionalism, learning his trade at provincial level behind Ireland internationals Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin.
Sexton was a savant of the set-piece, a mongrel of a scrummager, a pinpoint thrower. He was one for the future. For Leinster. For Ireland too.
"They had been European champions for the third time in four years. I knew I wouldn't have been in there if they didn't think I had potential," he said.
"I had unprecedented luck and success in the earlier part of my career. I won a Junior Cup and Senior Cup at Belvedere as captain and started every international for the Ireland U-20s, won an AIL with Lansdowne.
"I was on an upward trajectory. Then, it started to get harder as I moved up the ladder."
The road to achieving his long-held goals took a violent swing when his knee gave way in 2012.
"I suppose it all stemmed from doing my ACL in the third year of the Academy. I got back from that in six months, got a development contract and then I tweaked it in pre-season.
"The scan came back clean. But, it didn't feel right for the whole season," he recalled.
"My set-piece was fine, but around the park I wasn't aggressive enough or dynamic enough in contact. I had lost that abrasiveness in the contact that season.
"The only conclusion I could come to was that I was subconsciously protecting my knee."
That season, he got two starts away to Connacht at the Sportsground and away against Ospreys. They went fine, solid performances, just not what you needed to put your hand up and get noticed.
"Then, Aaron Dundon came in and I dropped behind him as well as Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin, third slipped to fourth."
The communication wasn't what it should have been. The love Sexton felt for his province would soon be replaced by resentment.
"I don't know what it is like now," he said.
"In my day, you heard everything through the grapevine. There was no communication. I was probably seen as not a big enough fish to warrant that conversation which was probably fair."
Sexton had a conversation with his agent Karl Hogan, centred around the fact Strauss and Cronin were just four years older and likely to be at Leinster for the foreseeable future.
"With the benefit of hindsight, I was probably very impetuous," he admitted.
"I had these goals, these trajectories and I wasn't making the progress I had planned on making.
"I was ambitious and I wasn't willing to sit and wait."
The 'feelers' were put out. There wasn't any hard interest from the other three provinces.
"The dream always was to be an international. In hindsight, I don't know if I was good enough to make it that far.
"But, if you don't believe you're good enough, you're never going to be. You have to believe that at the time.
"I looked at it coldly and asked the question if I'm only going to be third/fourth choice hooker at Leinster, am I going to make it? Maybe not."
At Christmas 2012, the Australian-born forward was given an offer from the Super Rugby team, the Melbourne Rebels
"It was a good salary of 90,000 Australian dollars, which would have been €60,000 at that time, with the match fee as an add-on, 2,000 dollars for a start, 1,000 dollars as a replacement."
Apparently, someone had spotted Sexton's place of birth on the match programmes when Ireland U-20 played at the 2009 World Cup with Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray.
"It is the same as it is here. They have a database of Australian-qualified players. I think it went back to the U-20 World Cup in Japan. The programme had a profile on it and my birthplace was on it.
"As far as I'm aware, they were looking at footage of me from then on," he said.
As it stood, it was the only offer on the table and the stubborn hooker regrets how he handled a life-changing situation.
"If I had my time over, I wouldn't have rushed into signing it because it was there. It was almost like a 'f**k you to Leinster.'
"It was a matter of value. I felt Leinster didn't value me and the contract from the Melbourne Rebels showed they did."
From the moment Sexton let coach Joe Schmidt know his decision, he was made to feel like an outsider.
"I told Joe I was taking it. I never really gave them the opportunity to make a counter-offer, to really find out where I stood. That irks me still that I didn't do that. And that was on me. That was my fault.
"I never asked the straight-up, awkward question: 'where do you see me going?' I was potentially afraid of the answer.
"I've got to take a lot of blame for not being patient," he added.
"If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have been in such a rush. I would have been more patient and not focussed so much on outcomes, on selections.
"Having two relatively young international-standard hookers ahead of me was bad luck, the knee was bad luck.
"I take a lot of blame for my mental approach at the time. I always did the work, just over-thinking it and putting too much pressure on myself are things I have to take ownership of."
Even then, he took 12 days to sign the contract and commit to leaving Leinster.
When Sexton shared his decision, everything changed: "It was a weird one. Literally, the following day, I was put on the shelf. I wasn't included in training sessions," he stated.
"I went from starting for Leinster A to not even being in the 23. Part of that could have been that I was going to a different country rather than a different province.
"Joe is a nice man and a brilliant coach but he is the most ruthless man on the planet when he needs to be. Any coach at that level has to be. He is smiling, while he is already planning without you.
"He will tell you what you want to hear, like that you are still part of his plans to keep you onside because he doesn't want you to throw in the towel in case there is an injury.
"He is playing the game. He has to. Sometimes he doesn't realise that other people are smart as well.
"You are effectively housed for the rest of the year and James Tracy came along, transitioning from prop to hooker, ultimately to do very well.
"I wasn't even involved in training unless they were short of numbers. I remember prepping for Cardiff Blues and I was training on the wing, just in case you didn't realise how much of an outcast you were," he laughed.
Sexton finished up in Leinster at the end of May 2013, went on holiday with his family and began an adventure in Australia that was to turn into a nightmare.
Read Part Two tomorrow: 'I didn't know what I was walking into in Australia'