Thursday 22 August 2019

My dream was to play for Man United! Johnny Sexton reveals all...

…but with a Six Nations Grand Slam, the European Champions Cup and a PRO14 win in the bag for 2018, soccer's loss is most definitely rugby's gain. Here, Leinster and Ireland star Johnny Sexton talks about his golden season and his ambition to tackle childhood obesity

Ireland rugby player Johnny Sexton. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Ireland rugby player Johnny Sexton. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Rugby star Johnny Sexton with his wife Laura. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Johnny shares a smile with his son Luca (4)
Johnny Sexton and the pupils of Scoil Maelruain at the launch of Super Troopers with Laya Healthcare obesity-fighting initiative, for which Johnny is an ambassador
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is a curious fact that has not gone unnoticed by Johnny Sexton's international teammates. On every single occasion that Ireland has won the Six Nations championship this decade his wife, Laura, has been pregnant. In August she will give birth to their third child and, unsurprisingly, the couple have had to take a good-natured ribbing.

"The lads are putting awful pressure on her to keep going," Sexton says, with a grin.

Weekend points out that Sexton's former teammate, rival, sometime foe and now, good friend, Ronan O'Gara has five children. "Jess [O'Gara's wife] has to look after six kids," he shoots back with a laugh.

His children - Luca (4) and Amy (2) - ensure that he doesn't think about rugby 24/7 like he used to. "There's definitely greater perspective now," he says. And he feels that as a parent he is much more mindful about downtime and recovery, especially as the extra-curricular pursuits of old have been put to bed.

Rugby star Johnny Sexton with his wife Laura. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Rugby star Johnny Sexton with his wife Laura. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"My interests have changed a lot, when you've got two young kids... whether you like it or not," he says. "My downtime years ago was spending time with the lads - going for dinner, going to the cinema, playing golf, playing poker, standard stuff that you do, nothing too crazy. But that's all changed now. It's about spending time with your kids."

But having children has not hampered Sexton's game one bit. If anything, at 32, he is at the peak of his powers. He's had a dream season - his last gasp drop goal in Paris set Ireland on course for only our third ever Grand Slam - and he was instrumental in Leinster's glorious 2018: last weekend they added the Guinness PRO14 trophy to the Champion's Cup they had won in Bilbao at the beginning of May.

Today, he is speaking to Weekend from the principal's office at Scoil Maelruain, Old Bawn, Tallaght, where he's helping to launch Laya Healthcare's Super Troopers initiative. It's a plan designed to get kids more active and it's something he clearly cares about. "It's putting exercise into their homework," he says. "It's getting the parents to think more about activity time with their children."

He is conscious of the country's worsening obesity problem - one where 40pc of children are now classified as overweight. "Super Troopers won't eradicate obesity," he says. "But it's a step in the right direction.

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"I grew up in quite an active family and that's how I bring up my kids. I know I'm lucky though, in that the latest I'm home is 4pm - we start very early with rugby training, so I've got plenty of time with them. I know that not every parent is able to do that, but the more they think about getting their children active the better."

Outside the principal's window scores of eight- and nine-year-olds are playing in the yard. It was the round ball, rather than the oval one that fed Sexton's sporting fantasies at that age.

Johnny shares a smile with his son Luca (4)
Johnny shares a smile with his son Luca (4)

"Playing for Man United was the dream," he says. "As a kid the only night I was allowed to stay up late was when United was playing in the European Cup - maybe that's why I like them so much! And I was in a national school that was very football-oriented so I was naturally drawn to it, but then moved to a rugby school [St Mary's College, Dublin] and that took over."

Sexton signalled his talents at an early age. At 16 he helped Mary's win the Leinster Senior Schools Cup - the holy grail of underage rugby in the province - and his was a name that was spoken about as a future international while still a teenager.

Although he is now seen as the very embodiment of Leinster's march to success, he grew up in a household with an allegiance to Munster. His father was devoted to the Munster cause and his godfather - Irish Independent columnist Billy Keane - is steeped in the traditions of Munster rugby and Kerry football.

"Leinster weren't big when I was growing up," he says, matter of factly. "When I was a teenager, Munster games were the big ones and Leinster were underachieving. But I still used to go down to Donnybrook on a Friday night and watch a lot of games there. I knew Trevor Brennan through Bective [Rangers, in Donnybrook]. I used to work in the bar on a Friday night for Bective. I'd be working there and could go out and watch the game and then work again after the game - that's where I got interested in Leinster and wanted to play for Leinster Schools and I did that and then I got into the academy."

With the exception of two seasons in Paris - following a big-money move to Racing 92 in 2013 - it's been Leinster all the way. Intriguingly, it was against Racing that Leinster claimed their latest Champion's Cup success and Sexton's dazzling performance showed his old team just what they had been missing.

He has mixed views about his time in France. "I do and I don't [have regrets]. I look back now and it was a great couple of years of my life - I learned a lot, I had a great life experience. But the rugby was up and down. I made some great friends but we didn't win anything.

"I think I would have regretted it if Leinster had won a European Cup and I wasn't there - and it looked like they could have. They lost to Toulon in the semis - that could have been a regret, but they didn't."

Sexton turns 33 next month and knows he has entered the final chapter of his career. But he insists he is not thinking too much about what he will do when he hangs up his boots. He is determined to keep his body right and play more - much more.

"In an ideal world I'd like to play three more seasons - I'd be 33, 34 and 35. But you don't know - you see certain people who are outliers in certain sports… people like Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter Stringer [both of whom played until their late 30s] and you think if you look after yourself you might be able to prolong your career. I've Stuart Lancaster [the former England coach and now second in command to Leinster coach Leo Cullen] in my ear now sending me videos of Tom Brady [the American football superstar] and he's 40 now.

"Sometimes in Ireland you feel that people retire before they want to, even if they're producing the goods."

But he is also aware that a career-ending injury can happen to anyone. "I'd think about it a bit when I'm not on the pitch. You look at someone with an incredible injury profile like Jamie Heaslip and one freak incident with a tackle bag and his career is finished. He's the unbreakable one - he's the guy that can go on and play until he's 38 which we all thought he would do.

"It just shows you, you're just one injury away. That's the scary part about being a rugby player and always has been. But when you're on the pitch, you don't think like that."

There has been much concern about concussions in rugby in recent years but Sexton believes the sport has woken up to the dangers. "Rugby is doing a lot to clean up the sport and make it as safe as possible in terms of high tackling and tackling in the air and dangerous play."

He's certainly had his fair share of injuries. "I had a bad year last year in terms of just picking up little niggles," he says. "But out of low points you get solutions and I've got a routine now I can stick to every day. I met some good people through that adversity - psychologists and so on - and that all helps, because while injuries obviously take their toll on your body, there's a mental side to it too, because you have to sit and watch games that you wish you could be playing in.

"You're always anxious about it - like when I was missing the Six Nations games, I was anxious knowing that if I don't get back I won't get picked for the Lions, and if I don't get picked for the Lions…" His voice trails off. "I'm just glad that this year has been so much better."

And what a year 2018 has been for Sexton's club and country. He excelled in the Six Nations and for Leinster but even the most casual rugby fan is likely to think of that sensational drop goal for Ireland.

"When I hit it I thought, 'That has a chance'," he says, "but the ref didn't blow his whistle for a long time so I turned to the big screen to see if it had been given. It's a bit of a blur, to be honest. I'd love to go back and know the outcome and relive it again but the funny thing is, in some of your best games, you can remember very little because you're in that zone."

He says such inspirational scores can give confidence for future games but he insists it could all have been so different if the connection between boot and ball wasn't just right. "If I'd missed that drop goal people would have said, 'What is he doing, trying it from back there?' But you've got to do what you think is right. We were running out of energy and I had to have a go and thankfully it did come off.

"But there are times where you hit a good kick and it misses and people say, 'You bottled it'. I mean, you can be the best pressure kicker ever one minute and then a few weeks later people are telling you you're the worst. It's very fickle."

He says the support of Laura is important to him, especially in the not-so-good times. "She's been around me for a long time - right from when we were at school - and she knows the ins and outs of it, that there might be soreness after a game and I'll be happy if we win and grumpy if we lose."

He has resisted the temptation to start Luca early with rugby. "He's not interested at the moment," he says, "and I'm not pushing him into it. I'm sure when he starts playing with his mates at school he'll find some sport that he likes.

"He likes recognising some of the guys that would be in the house on TV. When we're in Ireland camp, sometimes Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray stay with me on a Tuesday night because they don't want to drive home and then have to come back on Wednesday, so they would stay with me. He'd know them. So if he's watching Munster or Ireland and spots them he goes mad."

He is close to several of the Munster players due to the bonds engendered in Joe Schmidt's Ireland set-up and he is aware the country would have loved an All-Ireland Champion's Cup final in Bilbao. But Racing were too strong for Munster in the semi.

"The supporters would have loved that, but it would have been very strange from our point of view. With the Irish squad we've become very close. Some of my best friends in the Irish squad would be from Munster - it would have been a very tough game for us to play in."

Talk of playing Munster offers a reminder of one of the most storied days in Irish rugby - the occasion of the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2009, when the two provinces met at a packed Croke Park in Dublin. Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt at the time.

"Such great memories," he says. "The weather was lovely. We drove from our base at David Lloyds [gym] in Donnybrook and the amount of people on the streets from Munster and Leinster was incredible. I remember seeing my family going to the game - it was the first time I saw them on the street on the way to a match - and I saw my friends from school. The whole country was engrossed by it and then I was thrown into it and it was great."

Leinster won and many remember a photo which showed Sexton acting in triumphalist fashion towards his Munster counterpart Ronan O'Gara. The pair had been rivals and much was made in the media about the apparent hostility between the two. Sexton subsequently apologised and years later both men would become close, especially when O'Gara was recruited as a coach at Racing when Sexton was there.

Now O'Gara is in the early stages of a coaching career in New Zealand and Weekend wonders if Sexton is more likely to follow in his footsteps, rather than into the punditry of former teammates such as Brian O'Driscoll. "There's a lot to consider when you've got a family - going coaching is, yeah, attractive but is moving the whole family abroad again that exciting? I'm not sure."

That's a conversation for another day. Right now, Sexton is looking forward to a break from the demands of rugby. It's been a long, tough - and glorious - season. But the hunger doesn't fade, he insists, as he bids farewell. There's always the next play, and the next match, and the next season.

Johnny Sexton is an ambassador for Super Troopers with Laya Healthcare, Ireland's only 'Health Homework' programme running in almost half of all primary schools in Ireland. Super Troopers encourages healthier attitudes and behaviours among families towards physical activity, nutrition and emotional wellbeing. Visit

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