Sunday 16 December 2018

Billy Keane: Johnny Sexton's dad in long-johns and Bundee's bodhrán led the way on memorable weekend

Billy Keane shares a word with his godson Jonathan Sexton as he celebrates Ireland’s Grand Slam win at Twickenham. Photo: PA
Billy Keane shares a word with his godson Jonathan Sexton as he celebrates Ireland’s Grand Slam win at Twickenham. Photo: PA
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The weather was so cold the polar bears in London zoo wore long-johns and the penguins donned a second pair of socks. So did Jonathan Sexton's dad.

I'm staying with Jerry Sexton, the smartest rugby man of them all. Even still, he shocked us with the long-johns. He went for the cowboy-in-the-bunkhouse look.

His son - my godson - is quiet and unbearably modest, but when he togs out, his stated aim is to turn every scuffle into a war.

Jonathan's nana Brenda sold a lovely floral dress at half-time. She is 88 and a half.

Clare, his mother, left her hair salon in Dublin's Rathgar just in time for the kick-off. His best friend Laura is expecting their third in three years - the second Sexton Triple Crown in the one season. She minds her husband too.

These mighty women made him. The best players need the best back-up.

Jonathan is only dying to get home to his lovely little family.

He has brains too. There are times when he can barely lift up the kids. But you can't take the fighter out of the boy, for that is who he is, and it is the fight that defines him. Le drop against France won us the Slam. Every man stood up. And whisper it, for once, we had the luck of the Irish.

In Twickenham, our team lit a fire under England right from the go.

The English rugby people were embarrassed by the remarks of their coach, who referenced the "scummy Irish". Eddie Jones is in the last act of a one-man Shakespearian tragedy. His scummy Irish and anti-Welsh comments were no more than boxing trash talk. Eddie, I'm told, likes us.

Who should I meet but Conor Murray's mother Barbara, and this is what I said to her: "There's one favour I need Barbara: is there any chance you could have another baby?"

The players were too tired to celebrate in the team hotel. You would swear they lost. The English were bigger and they hit hard.

We cheered and we cried and we gloried on a white St Patrick's Day in London. The Slam is won for only the third time since the death of our patron saint in 432 AD. That's only the bare three in about 1,700 years of Patrick's Days.

These young men knew. They knew their games were the lifting of a nation and the making of new history.

But yesterday our heroes cut loose in Heathrow when the plane was delayed. Bundee Aki made a bodhrán out of a tray. He is as Irish now as any of us. They sang The Fields at the tops of their voices. And I gave them a hand.

Teacher Joe sat back. Boys will be boys.

We as a country owe so much to Joe. Joe is an organiser and, like all good teachers, he is firm but fair. His hard work is the key to success, not just in sport, but in every walk of life and is the template for a better Ireland.

We have the courage and the intelligence. All we need to grow stronger as a country is to work on the detail. Joe looks after the small stuff.

But there's more. He is creative too. This year we played the running game and scored more tries than ever before.

Joe coached his school and he knows boys move on. Our headmaster is building for the future. The finishing 10, 12, and 13 are only barely past shaving age.

Ah but it's good to be Irish, both new and old. We're a fair old place all the same, aren't we? For the size of us, or for any size. And now one size fits all.

Young boys and young girls will take confidence and courage from the thinking and the doing. Old boys and old girls, from an Ireland that was often down on self-confidence, pay homage to an Ireland that will survive and thrive.

There are no boundaries to the march of our nation. We used to be only a small place just clinging on. But our boys lifted a tiny nation to the exalted and the glorious.

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