Monday 23 October 2017

'I was frustrated and jealous but it helps you for the rocky road that lies ahead'

Jonathan Sexton talks to David Kelly about finding peace in his Kerry sanctuary, the long wait for his big break with Leinster and becoming a Lion in 2013

At some stage during this Six Nations Championship, two Jonathan Sextons will embark upon a journey.

Sometimes the lights will snag them at Newlands Cross, sometimes the green glow beckons them straight through. "Only three hours now," the driver thinks to himself. "I'll drop you out here if that's okay."

The passenger alights. And so Jonathan Sexton continues his journey, pointing his car south-west all the way to Listowel. Behind him, he leaves the rugby player, the public figure, the weighty bearer for so many Irish sporting hopes and dreams. Excess baggage.

And suddenly the car seems a whole lot lighter.

When he arrives, he knows he has reached his sanctuary. He is not escaping; he has nothing to run from, after all. But he appreciates the value of a haven he has been intimate with for as long as he can remember.

"It's great just to relax, to get away from rugby, to get away from Dublin," says Sexton, sitting a million miles away from his haven in a busy city centre hotel, being tugged and poked by a sea of needy faces.

"A lot of my family are down there, uncles, granny, granddad, cousins. It's great just to see them. I like to go down there for at least half my holidays in the summer. It's great to chill out. And I go down there on weekends in pre-season.

"You hit Newlands Cross and you're there in three hours. Bye bye rugby player. Get down there and get away from it. They're still mad keen to talk rugby down there but it's easier to get away from it."

Sometimes he'll steer a path away from the town, winding his way up the 10 miles to the cliffs in Ballybunion, and the golden beach splintered uniquely by the jutting castle.

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On a clear day, you can just about see Kerry Head and Clare Head, as the anglers pass by on their way to Beal Point in search of flounder or, on a good day, the odd bass. He'll golf in Ballybunion, pop into JB's, the pub where once playwright John B Keane worked and wrote. As coincidence would have it, we have just bumped into his son, Billy, fresh from the premiere of the latest production of 'The Field'.

Billy just happens to be Jonny's godfather; the link being a friendship with Jerry, Jonny's dad, as well as one of Jonny's many playing uncles, Willie, who was a famed back-rower from Garryowen, representing Munster and Ireland with distinction. The tentacles encompass much of the south-west.

"Ah, I went down for summers at a time with the cousins in Ballybunion, then into Listowel in the evenings," Sexton reminisces. "It wouldn't matter if it was lashing rain, we'd be on the beach even if it was freezing or messing around on the golf course. I've just always loved it. I still do.

"It's an easy place to relax, everything is so laid-back, it's brilliant to get down there. It's the change as much as anything, like a different world, it brings you to a different place."

In this corner of the world, he can become seamlessly serene in seclusion.

"I suppose it can," he agrees. "It's quiet down there at times. I find it easy to relax at times. It's harder for the big games. On your day off, you try to chill and do nothing but it's harder to do that in a city.

"Most of the time I'm here in Dublin, I'm in work mode, training or doing something, whereas down there is a separate thing, I'm never working there. It's a separate life.

"I've family up here and then I've the Kerry family as well, and a few spread around Limerick as well."

Does the dual existence help him to keep grounded? "I'd like to think I'm grounded anyway," he muses. "It's good to have that other element to my life, but even if I didn't go down there I'd hope I'd still be grounded."

Away from the other element of his life, his professional career resumes with vigour in Rome next weekend, when he kicks off a mammoth year for Irish rugby as Declan Kidney's pre-eminent out-half.

There will be many occasions in which he will seek solace in the sanctuary of Kerry; even if only within his head. And yet, if he thinks of all the challenges ahead -- Magners League, Heineken Cup, Six Nations, World Cup -- it would simply not compute.

"It energises you," he says before interrupting himself with necessary caveats. "It's something to look forward to, touch wood, get picked and stay injury free. At the start of the season, though, I did promise myself just to concentrate on this season, rather than looking at the year ahead.

"I'll think of the World Cup at the end of the season, we've the Heineken, the Magners, another five months left in this season. Come the holidays, I'll re-evaluate and try to get picked for the World Cup and set new goals for that."

You tell him that Stuart Barnes in 'Rugby World' has already inked his name in the 2013 Lions team and he smiles incredulously.

"Really? When was that? I didn't see it. Ah, it's nice."

But it's crazy!

"Yeah it is!"

Sexton's road less travelled has had enough potholes to inure him against any sense of complacency. His travails at Leinster, when he nearly decamped in frustration mid-season before ending it an impudent Heineken Cup winner, have been well documented.

And yet even more revealing of his character were the initial days in the professional game. Having cast off what is often the comfort blanket of the schools rugby environment, Sexton's schoolboy stardom didn't swiftly translate to the real world.

"At the start I struggled with that," he admits. As a 16-year-old, he had become the only one in his class to boast a Senior Cup medal, a prize as exalted in South Dublin as an All-Ireland winner's medal is in Kilkenny.

His love of golf and tennis had receded in the face of an ultra-professional devotion to rugby, far from the innocence of his days on the back pitch of Bective Rangers as an enthusiastic seven-year-old.

Training was four days a week. Circuit training was mandatory. Matches were twice a week.

Professional footballers are part-timers in comparison. But Sexton was a star. His drop-goal clinched that 2002 win against Belvedere; mirroring his famous 2009 arrival at Croke Park, his first job had been to complete a pre-set move with the game's decisive kick just minutes after coming off the bench in the final quarter on a foul day.

There was a lot of scratching during that seven-year itch.

"I was in Rob Kearney's year coming out of school and he just came out and did that," he says, shooting his hand skywards. "Upward curve all the time. I was frustrated and a little jealous to watch him do all this, to go so far ahead of me when we'd been on the same path.

"I suppose it's the fact we're in different positions. When I went to Leinster I had Felipe Contepomi ahead of me. It prepares you for the rocky road, you know. Out-half is never going to be smooth because it's not that type of position.

"It's not easy, it's never a case of being good, good, good. There'll be bad days, you'll be told you had a bad day when you didn't have a bad day. I learned a lot through those years.

"I had some great days with St Mary's (the club side), winning trophies. Since the Heineken Cup, it's been an upward curve but that's been a change of emphasis really in myself. I've been trying to look after myself better.

"When I hit that low in December of '08, I sat down and re-evaluated everything. I started to look after my conditioning a lot better. I met Dave Alred and changed a lot in the way I practise my kicking, changed my routine.

"And all that helped to propel me upwards. I still remember the tough times and I still learn from them. There have been bad days in the last year too. And I'm sure there'll be some bad days ahead."

Last year franked his status as Ireland's first-choice out-half but lingering doubts persisted, not entirely assuaged when Ronan O'Gara emerged from the bench to almost turn the South Africa defeat into victory.

"Personally, I didn't feel there was a dip in form last year. I thought I played some of my best stuff. There was a perception of a dip. I missed kicks I wouldn't normally have missed and I went through a tough time with my kicking.

"I've learned a lot from that experience, trying to separate kicking from my playing. So hopefully that was a blip but it was frustrating."

His understanding of the kicking process has been a vital progression in his career.

Meeting renowned kicking guru Alred, who stopped him over-compensating by kicking with his foot open, changed his professional approach immeasurably; it was as crucial as any pick-me-up issued by either Kidney or then Leinster coach Michael Cheika during that seminal 2008-09 season.

Alred forms one part of his Holy Trinity of kicking coaches; Leinster's Richie Murphy deals with him day to day, while national kicking coach Mark Tainton will guide him during the forthcoming Six Nations.

Too many cooks and all that, one might suggest. Sexton insists he can locate the happy medium.

"It's not ideal," he admits. "Richie's day in day out, Dave is one of the best coaches in the world and I see him whenever I can. I just know what they can offer me.

"A lot of the way I practise I got direction from Dave, that was an eye opener and a big turning point for me when I first met him. I just know what I'm doing now.

"I know why stuff is happening -- not everything, otherwise I wouldn't have had that blip in the Six Nations. It took me a while to figure that out. But next time it shouldn't take that long. I've learned to manage everything."

At least nearly everything. He's currently involved in a tug of war between the IRFU and, if one adheres to the bush telegraph, Stade Francais, current home to his former coach Cheika.

It would be an interesting reunion. There is a perception that Cheika, Leinster's Heineken Cup-winning coach, never really trusted youth in general and Sexton in particular; were it not for Contepomi's jarring injury in that 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park, would Sexton ever have got his opportunity to break through?

The player himself is unambiguous.

"I made my decisions at the time. Looking back they were good decisions, obviously there was a little bit of luck.

"Young guys now have to make these decisions. You have to just make the decision you think is best and whatever happens. If someone told me what was going to happen, I wouldn't have taken them seriously.

"Maybe I deserved the break. I wouldn't have wished anything on Felipe but I was playing well in March and April, Michael was saying he was going to start me, then he didn't so... you get what you deserve. Some guys don't get what they deserve.

Veteran

"But listen. If I was the coach back then, with a 22-year-old who hadn't a load of big games, and you have Felipe who's had hundreds and was a World Cup veteran, I'd have made the same decision. Naturally, I wasn't thinking like that at the time. You can't blame Michael for that."

Cheika is currently getting blamed for upsetting Sexton yet again; this time in his supposedly dogged pursuit of the Irish out-half, whose contract negotiations with the IRFU trundle on lethargically.

Whoever is codding whoever else, Sexton seems genuinely annoyed at the sense of lingering ennui; his loyalty to Leinster is being openly questioned by some supporters. It's clear he wants to stay in Dublin; it is others who are haggling over the price tag.

You joke about him getting a dog, like Jamie Heaslip, and he nods gently. "I don't think I'd be allowed one in the apartment," he smiles.

It's a surreal picture. One of Ireland's pivotal players in the most important year of Ireland's recent history is plotting the downfall of the world's best from an apartment; some of his colleagues live in gated splendour in relative mansions.

Little wonder he tries to escape to the tranquillity of the countryside as much as possible, perhaps as soon as this day fortnight, after which he will have hopefully helped Ireland to two opening wins in the Six Nations.

"I struggled with that at the start," he says, referring to the star quality suddenly attached to his persona. "It used to drain me but I'm getting used to it. We're able to hide."

Mercifully, Sexton knows just the place.



  • Leinster and Ireland out-half Jonny Sexton uses Maximuscle, Europe's leading sports nutrition brand, to optimise his performance. Follow Jonny's progress during the Six Nations at www.maximuscle.ie.

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